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Creative Hopelessness

July 20, 2021

When I feel stressed or uncertain, I often turn to doing more and working harder to fix my uncomfortable feelings. You can see the inherent problem in this. The more stressed I am, the more I work, the more I feel stressed! Seen through an ACT lens, my overworking functions as an Experiential Avoidance strategy. […]

Get Unstuck with Creative Hopelessness
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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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When I feel stressed or uncertain, I often turn to doing more and working harder to fix my uncomfortable feelings. You can see the inherent problem in this. The more stressed I am, the more I work, the more I feel stressed!

Seen through an ACT lens, my overworking functions as an Experiential Avoidance strategy. Experiential Avoidance is our unworkable attempt to avoid, control and fix life’s discomfort.

You may not be an over-doer, but you are human, so it’s likely you experientially avoid. When faced with discomfort do you tend to:

  • Strive (overachieve, overwork, compete)
  • Numb out (with substances, food, exercise, self-harm)
  • Brace with your body (hold your breath, clench your jaw, tense your body)
  • Distract (check out with technology, multitasking)
  • Give up (opt out, isolate, get back in bed)
  • Rush Through (speed up, stay busy)
  • Overthink (problem solve, intellectualize)
  • Blame (point fingers, judge)

Get Unstuck with Creative Hopelessness

Recognizing the unworkability of experiential avoidance is a first step. In ACT, this is called Creative Hopelessness. We see that what we are doing is making things worse, and open to the possibility of a different way of living.

In ACT, creative hopelessness is waking up to the unworkability of your attempts to control your inner experiences, and be willing to make room for new possibilities.

Tigers Above, Tigers Below

There is a Zen Koan about tigers and strawberries that I learned from Pema Chödrön’s Comfortable with Uncertainty that illustrates creative hopelessness beautifully.

In the story, a woman is running from tigers. She comes to a cliff and grasps onto a vine. She starts to lower herself down, only to find tigers below. Then she notices that a mouse starts to gnaw at the vine. The woman looks around and sees a patch of strawberries, reaches over and eats one. It is the most delicious strawberry she has ever eaten.

Pema Chödrön writes: “Tigers above, tigers below. Such is the predicament of life”

Discomfort is inevitable, it is how we respond, in the present moment that matters.

Are you caught in fixing, avoiding and controlling? Is it no longer working for you? Try these steps:

  • Pause and Get Present. Notice you are experientially avoiding.
  • Give Yourself Grace. We all avoid discomfort. It’s human.
  • Pay Attention: What feelings, thoughts, sensations am I trying to avoid/control/fix?
  • Be Honest with Yourself: What are the costs of experiential avoidance?
  • Open Up: Allow for your full experience, without trying to change it.
  • Choose Values: Instead of acting on avoidance/fixing/control, shift your action towards what’s most important to you at this moment.

You can go here to listen to my talk and meditation on Creative Hopelessness. Get Unstuck with Creative Hopelessness!

Journal Prompts:

  • When have you felt creative hopelessness in your life? How did it help you get unstuck from an unhelpful pattern?
  • What are you trying to fix/control/avoid in your life right now? How do you want to respond differently?

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