For five straight months, I went online to look up the Pilates class schedule. I promised myself I was going to get back to it the very next day. And so, for five straight months, 2 or 3 times a week, I would click on the big, bold, flashing “Sign Up!” button. I would then quickly find a million reasons not to go like the times weren’t convenient, I had a little pain in my knee or a felt a cold coming on. I would then confidently close my laptop while enjoying an instant sense of relief. However, these moments of relief were always short-lived. Soon enough the feelings of shame, guilt, low energy, and all the facts about the benefits of exercise would torment me and the cycle would repeat.
I was so frustrated that I couldn’t “Just Do It” and get back to a regular exercise routine. What was keeping me from just hitting the “Sign Up!” button and showing up to class? As un-enamored with exercise as I have historically been, I tried Pilates a few years back and actually enjoyed it. The studio is close by, parking is easy, and the environment is friendly and supportive. I was puzzled as to why it was such an emotional relief to not do it. It finally occurred to me that I was doing the very thing I often work with clients to do less of – experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is the action we take to get rid of distressing or unwanted thoughts, emotions, feelings or other internal experiences like urges or memories. Of course, we are all pretty good at avoiding negative experiences and it is often perfectly normal. We avoid foods we dislike, tasks we aren’t good at, awkward situations, bad memories, and feelings of stress, shame, or sadness. But sometimes our attempts at avoidance can be harmful or excessive. Examples might be choosing to never leaving the house to avoid social anxiety, using substances to avoid painful emotions, or turning to social media to distract from difficult thoughts. These kinds of experiential avoidance often provide short term relief to distress, but increase our suffering in the long term and keep us from living the life we really want to live.
In my case, I realized when I thought about going back to Pilates class my chest tightened with dread. Not at the thought of the actual exercise, but of the feelings I anticipated by starting again. I imagined being embarrassed at showing up again after five months, of being the least fit one in the room, and the awkward interaction with the instructor who would wonder where I had been. As these painful thoughts and feelings arose, they felt like true danger signals and I chose avoidance time and time again by quickly formulating an excuse.
Once we realize what painful internal experience we are avoiding, we have the option of exercising experiential acceptance instead of avoidance. For me, this meant recognizing the distressing thoughts and feelings and accepting that it made sense that I would feel that way. When I went back to sign up I was able to accept the wave of anxiety that came (and went) as I clicked “Sign Up!” and paid the fee. Actually showing up for the class required another round of experiential acceptance as I did feel a wave of anxiety and awkwardness, but it did not harm me as my tight chest and rising anxiety had led me to believe.
Accepting that I would have some negative feelings and that it was ok to feel that way allowed me to choose, what some therapists call, committed action. This means taking effective action that moves us in the direction of our values. In this situation, going back to Pilates class involved experiential acceptance of the negative feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness and the committed action of showing up. This moved me in the direction of my value of good health and regular exercise.
Are there areas of your life in which you recognize a pattern of experiential avoidance? Sometimes stepping back and becoming an observer of your internal experiences can help you make sense of the distress you are experiencing. Recognizing and accepting many of our internal experiences ss uncomfortable but not dangerous. It can open us to the possibility of choosing valued behaviors and activities rather than avoiding suffering. This can lead, choice by choice, to a more fulfilling and satisfying life.