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Can you compassionately tolerate emotional experience without reaching for something to stop it?

Sitting with emotion is something a lot of people struggle with. Just allow it to wash over you naturally, without turning to something that will smother, numb, or block it out. Some use TV, gaming, alcohol or smoking. Others use retail therapy, gambling, social media, drugs or food. It can be revealing to just sit for as little as 20 minutes and observe what feelings pop up. Then notice which emotions are more difficult to sit with and produce urges to block. This might be where something needs working through.

Sometimes you can’t change the content of your thoughts, no matter how hard you try. Perhaps there is some truth to what you are telling yourself. For example, you may think, “I drank so much that I couldn’t take care of myself that night.” Of course, no one should ever hurt you when you are in that condition! But the healthy alternative thought, “No one should have hurt me, regardless of how much alcohol I drank,” may be difficult for you believe. In this case, it is easier to observe your thoughts and use the word “and” in between them, rather than deciding which one is the more true.

So, as you observe your thoughts, add the healthy alternative rather than revise the existing thought: “I should not have drunk so much that night AND no one had the right to hurt me.” This approach can also be powerful if you have guilt about things you did or didn’t do during the traumatic event. For example, in combat, domestic violence, and other high-stress situations, people face horrible dilemmas. Perhaps you have done things you are not proud of. Perhaps other people were hurt as a result of some of the decisions you made. Again, rather than trying to change these beliefs, try observing them and using the word “and” in between the thoughts. The below exercise focuses on simply observing your thoughts. The purpose of this type of exercise is to help you develop some emotional distance from your own thoughts, which helps to reduce your anxiety, worry, and emotional pain. This type of approach definitely takes practice.

Use this Acceptance and Commitment therapy technique for Observing Painful Thoughts

Purpose: To learn how to observe your thoughts without judgment.


1. Choose a quiet place without distractions. If possible, choose an environment where you feel fairly safe.

2. Sit in a comfortable chair. Your eyes can be open or closed, whichever is

comfortable. Set a timer for 4 minutes.

3. Notice the thoughts that come and go in your mind. You do not need to figure out if the thoughts are true or false, or to think about what they mean. Just observe them. Choose a metaphor about the thoughts and their passing that works well for you, such as:

a. You are on a cloud. It is soft and comfortable. Imagine that all the thoughts you have are on other clouds in the sky. You can watch them float by you. Just observe them. Watch them come and go. You do not need to get involved in the particular content of any thought—you are safe on your cloud.

b. Imagine you are seated comfortably and your thoughts are running on a conveyor belt in front of you. You are not in control of the speed of the conveyor. If you are tempted to look into the boxes, just pull out a label and write the word “thought” on it. You can put the label on the box and watch it go down the conveyor belt.

c. You are sitting on the beach in a comfortable chair. Your thoughts are like waves. You watch them roll in and out on the shore. Your feet are firmly in the sand. Some waves are gentle and pause as they hug the shore. Then they recede. Some waves are strong and forceful as the come up on the shore. These waves recede quickly. You can just observe the various waves as you are seated safely on the shore.

d. You are in an airplane that is cruising at a high altitude. It is a very smooth ride. As you look below, you notice small houses and roads. You can see cars making their way on meandering roads. As the thoughts come and go in your mind, you notice them in the same way you notice the houses and cars you see in the distance. They will stay in your mind for a while and then they will pass out of view.

Log your practice. To rate your anxiety level, use a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is no anxiety at all and 10 is overwhelming anxiety. Body sensations include how your body is feeling—for example, your heart racing, sweaty palms, the tension in your muscles, or a stomach or headache. Try this activity for seven days of thought observation; you may want to save this post to use over a longer period.

Thought Observation Day 1

Level of anxiety before thought observation: /10

Body sensations before thought observation:

Level of anxiety after thought observation: /10

Body sensations after thought observation

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