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We have physical, emotional and mental needs and wants; some tangible, some intangible.

In the case where we know that some of our needs and/or wants are not going to be met; how can the mind be trained to accept the reality with an ongoing craving, learn to accept the reality and live with it, as opposed to escaping within one's imagination dreaming of the past or the future?

For example:

In a committed relationship where one person is not receiving romantic, emotional and sexual pleasures, how can that person learn to accept these facts without continually fantasising and desiring these pleasures with someone else?

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@JeromyAnglim I have made a change. Is it generalized now? –  TheIndependentAquarius Oct 8 '13 at 8:21
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It's just a sense. Let's see how it goes. I'm sure your willingness to edit your question to try to make it a useful general resource will be well received. –  Jeromy Anglim Oct 8 '13 at 12:14
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@ThinksALot I understand your point now. You are saying what I meant to say. –  TheIndependentAquarius Oct 9 '13 at 5:34
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@coeus Seems I haven't expressed myself clearly. Not a native English speaker am I - will try again: The question is - how to accept that you are not going to get any emotional pleasures like romance and sex, so it is important to live with this fact rather than live in a imaginative world where you dream of having sex with someone else. ----- Am I clear now? –  TheIndependentAquarius Oct 9 '13 at 5:57
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I have edited the example with the above feedback to make the question more clearer to other users. –  coeus Oct 9 '13 at 6:19
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2 Answers

How can the mind be trained to accept ongoing mental or emotional suffering?

Experiential avoidance: avoiding what we don't like

From the lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the process of regressing to a favourable past experience of escapism would be a maladaptive response to experiential avoidance. We avert our attention and stray away from the very things that cause us distress, e.g. we shift our attention to favourable past experiences with previous relationships when we are fighting with our loved ones in the present. We avoid the very things we need to deal with by distracting ourselves with other behaviours.

Experiential avoidance is defined as (EA; Hayes, Strohsahl, Wilson et al., 2004):

... [an] unwillingness to experience feelings, thoughts and sensations as well as attempts to alter them.

For example, to avoid feeling loathe and resentment for their partner, a person resorts to seemingly pleasurable activities like gambling and drinking.

Mindfulness and psychological flexibility: seeing things the way they are

How do we then train the mind to address behaviours that arise from experiential avoidance?

The model of psychological flexibility is a good starting point in understand how to address ongoing distress, both physical and mental. The theory of psychological flexibility is around cultivating a sustained capability to observe experiences non-judgmentally while committing to value-driven activities (Masuda et al., 2011):

it is an overall behavior pattern of experiencing whatever one is experiencing as it is fully and non-judgmentally without excessive defense (i.e., mindfulness), while engaging in value-directed activities at the same time (i.e., commitment to actions).

Firstly, in the context of a loveless marriage, the mental training involved would be around cultivating mindfulness to observe the experiences that cause the craving for 'mental and physical pleasures'. To see things clearly is paramount. The descriptor 'loveless' is not an indicator of factual evidence that a relationship is slowly dissolving. Recognising how one uses language and how it affects cognition is important in practicing mindfulness.

Secondly, values are the key catalyst for behavioural change. By systematically seeing things as they are through non-judgmental awareness, one can train their mind in focusing on acting in-line with 'what truly matters to them'. This has eudaemonic roots but has practical implications for psychological flexibility. Consider this very simple hypothetical example:

X believes that he or she is in a 'loveless' marriage. This causes X a lot of psychological distress, e.g. X feels anxious and hopeless about the future with Y (partner). This anxiety manifests in thoughts such as 'I don't love Y. Why am I with Y?'. This is the language component that considerably causes a high amount of distress for X. X recognises the distress he/she feels and learns to become non-judgmentally aware and accepts that these thoughts and emotions for what they are. X identifies the values in his life that holds dear. As a result, X finds that he has greater clarity around how he should behave - he wants to be in a committed and flourishing relationship and does not want to resort to seemingly pleasurable activites, e.g. excessive alcohol, cheating etc.

Freedom in experiencing and choosing

So the key to accepting ongoing mental or emotional suffering is to acknowledge them non-judgmentally and recognise any avoidant behaviours that are arising. Regarding the loveless marriage, the same concept applies: be aware of the thoughts and feelings causing the avoidant behaviours, tap into your values (i.e. for a better marriage, better relationship) and act accordingly to those values. Thus, rather than consumed in mental and physical pleasures - one has the freedom to take a step back and respond to their needs rather than react to ongoing emotional turmoil. This is by no means passive resignation.

Additional: Simple explanation on mindfulness and values

As humans, our thoughts and feelings seem like the only source of truth in understanding ourselves and the world. However, we can get caught up in thoughts and feelings believing that they are true when they are not. This is where mindfulness and values are important.

Mindfulness refers to non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. In some ways, we become observers of our thoughts and feelings and we "take a step back" rather than act on them instantly. Some of these thoughts can cause behaviours where we avoid addressing how we feel rather than sort them out. For example, assume that X has a thought - "She/He never wants to have sex. I'm so frustrated about this." Because of this, X might go and cheat on his/her partner. This is the avoidant behaviour: X behaves in a way that he/she does not address how he/she feels or is thinking. Therefore, practicising mindfulness may help us recognise how we feel and think and not act so quickly.

What next? Well, clear values help us know how we want to behave. X may realise that his/her value is to have loving, intimate and sexual relationship with someone he/she cares about. He/she may then decide to communicate with his/her partner about the problem or decide to move on. Either way, X behaves according to his/her values and not simply how he/she feels.


References

  • Hayes, S.C., Strohsahl, K., Wilson, K.G., et al. (2004). Measuring experiential avoidance. A preliminary test of a working model. Psychological Record, 54, 553–578.
  • Masuda, A., Anderson, P.L., Wendell, J.W., Choi, Y.Y., Price, M. & Feinstein, A.B. (2011). Psychological flexibility mediates the relations between self-concealment and negative psychological outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 243-247.
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You said: be aware of the thoughts and feelings causing the avoidant behaviours, tap into your values (i.e. for a better marriage, better relationship) and act accordingly to those values. Thus, rather than consumed in mental and physical pleasures - one has the freedom to take a step back and respond to their needs rather than react to ongoing emotional turmoil. Could you be more kind enough to explain this part in somewhat detail and simple english, please. –  TheIndependentAquarius Oct 9 '13 at 9:06
    
Are you willing to explain this a bit further? –  TheIndependentAquarius Oct 9 '13 at 10:10
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Absolutely. I'm a little busy at the moment but will endeavour to explain for you. I'll add some further information about dealing with values in the context of acceptance of the partner and yourself when I write my response. –  coeus Oct 9 '13 at 10:22
    
Please be patient and I'll elaborate on the answer. –  coeus Oct 9 '13 at 10:23
    
Okay, thanks, I thought you have missed my comment. I'll be patient. :) –  TheIndependentAquarius Oct 9 '13 at 10:29
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I have a chronic illness and my experience is that acceptance is a function of giving up the hope that someone/something will save me and/or the hope that the world will magically re-allocate resources to compensate for the injustice of my injury. Removing these thought consuming loops forces the brain to explore new options that are more realistic.

So it might a function of learning to inhibit the seductive fantasies of rescue.

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