Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

Chapter 7

The Ultimate Weapon: The Sword of Willingness

Katrina can still hear them. She lies down on her bed, trying to shield herself from her monsters. But they are relentless.

“What is wrong with you?” the Shame monster shouts at her.

The Anxiety monster chimes in: “If you even attempt to drive, you will be in an accident again, especially if you drive alone or if you go past that intersection where it happened. It’s NOT safe!”

The more Katrina tries to hide from them, the louder the monsters become. This tends to be the case for a lot of difficult emotional experiences. Trying to control our experiences is a losing battle. As we saw in chapter 2, the more we try to control or avoid our thoughts or emotions, the more likely we are to experience them.

Here’s a silly example. I would like you to imagine a pink unicorn, maybe one that looks a little bit like the one on the next page. Can you visualize it? Can you see its pink body, its pink mane, and its pink horn?

Great!

Now what I’d like for you to do is close your eyes for one minute and do everything you can to NOT think of the pink unicorn. Don’t imagine it. Don’t think of the words “pink” or “unicorn” at all. Go!

How did that go? Most people find this task to be nearly impossible to do. The very moment we are told not to think about something, that is usually all we think about. The same thing also applies to emotions. If someone offered you $1,000,000 to not like your favorite geek outlet—be it comic books, gaming, cosplaying, or TV shows—or other values or favorite activities, could you do it? Could you actually force yourself to stop liking the things that are most meaningful to you?

The answer is no. We cannot stop our feelings merely by ordering them to stop. We might be able to temporarily suppress them, but what usually happens when we do that is that the blocked emotions end up coming out in other ways. For example, Katrina’s attempts to control her driving anxiety might lead to her feeling anxious when she’s in any other situation that she cannot control, such as being out with her friends.

However, what happens when Katrina stops running away from the monsters and looks at them for a while? They shrink! The more willing we are to engage our feared emotions, thoughts and other difficult internal experiences, the less intimidating they seem to become.

Katrina’s initial attempts to control her driving anxiety were not successful, but what was successful was her willingness to experience this discomfort in the service of her values. Willingness means agreeing to feel certain emotions that might make us uncomfortable, such as fear, sadness, anxiety, and vulnerability. These emotions are not dangerous, though it sometimes might feel as if they are. We neither have to like experiencing these feelings, nor do we have to want them, we just need to be willing to experience them.

Willingness incorporates all emotions, including anger. Many people might believe, like Drovin, that anger is an unacceptable emotion, as it can lead to aggression and violence. However, the emotion of anger and the act of aggression are two different things, and while we may not be able to control how we feel, we can usually control what we do. In some instances, anger can even be protective, as it alerts us that we or someone we care about may be in danger and may need our protection. And just as with other emotions, the more we fight and try to suppress anger, the more we might experience it.

As an example of willingness, imagine that Neil picked up a Chinese finger trap in one of his classes at the Wizarding College. Curious, but not knowing what it was, Neil analyzed the strange device until his own fingers got caught in it. Naturally being quite anxious, and also worried about getting into trouble with the teacher, Neil attempted to remove the strange device from his fingers. But he noticed that the more he tried to pull his fingers out, the tighter the trap became. After many of his other attempts to set himself free failed miserably, Neil did what he thought was unthinkable: he pushed his fingers deeper into the trap. To his surprise and deep relief, the trap came loose and Neil was able to free his fingers.

Our emotions are kind of like the finger trap. The more we try to avoid or control them, the stronger they might become over time. However, the more open we are to experiencing them, the less likely we are to struggle with them over time. Think of it as like having coffee or tea with your monsters and getting to know them a little bit. Many people, like Monica for example, find out that when they get to know their monsters, the monsters seem to have less of an impact on them.

What willingness is and isn’t

Willingness is not:

·               • Tolerating abuse

·               • Accepting injustice

·               • Giving in or giving up

·               • Pushing beyond your limit

Willingness is:

·               • Agreeing to experience any internal emotions that might show up on your superhero journey. These might include anxiety, insecurity, depression, and fusion with thoughts such as “I can’t do it.”

·               • Being vulnerable enough to say “I love you” first, to take a chance on something that is extremely important to you because opportunities like that don’t always present themselves. Being vulnerable has been shown to be beneficial for people’s well-being and for improving their relationships.

·               • Being courageous. Some people believe that “courage” means not having any fear. That is not accurate. Courage actually means doing what you believe in despite being afraid or struggling with physical or emotional pain.

And you know what? I did. After receiving numerous heart-wrenching rejections from publishers and agents, I did give up. I believed the monsters; I fused with the thoughts they created and I tried to control my feelings by shutting down and not trying. After a few months of this I was miserable. My monsters were louder than ever, and I felt as though my life didn’t have a purpose. Finally, I realized that I needed to go through my values list, and what I saw made me very sad. I saw that I was not engaging at all in the values most important to me: creativity, compassion, and supporting others through my writing.

I decided to practice what I preached to my patients; willingness. I was willing to open up to more potential heartbreak and failure. Somehow, through it all I found my courage and was later found by and signed with a publisher that my “amateur,” insecure self-identity would have never even allowed me to apply to work with. I’m over the moon about being able to work on this book. And what this experience has taught me is that when we are willing to take chances, we are more likely to get what we really want than when we don’t even try. It might be hard to do that when the monsters are especially rambunctious, but in a way, that’s what they do. The monsters’ role, at least in some ways, is to keep us safe—safe from embarrassing ourselves, safe from danger, safe from being overwhelmed—however wrong they might be. If we openly engage with them, we just might be able to befriend them after all.

Superhero Steps

This week your task is opening up to thoughts and feelings that you’re willing to experience for something that’s very important to you, such as a core value or something on your “bucket list.” In addition, continue to practice gratitude daily.