Sometimes when feeling stuck or overwhelmed with negative emotions, it’s really difficult to act in a way that is most effective or helpful. Often, our behaviour is dictated by a strong instinct to escape or reduce those negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, fear, shame, anger, guilt, etc.). But, in trying to feel better in the short-term, we may act in ways that are not the best for us in the long-term. We might even make things worse.
Say, for example, that you’re struggling in a relationship – it might be a friendship, an intimate relationship, or a relationship at work. Perhaps there’s an ongoing conflict and anger, or you’re having difficulties setting boundaries, saying no, or asking for what you want. Maybe you’re really anxious. You may be tempted to distance yourself from that person, or avoid having the conversations that you need to have to improve things. In distancing or avoiding, you’re trading short-term relief from, or avoidance of, negative emotions for long-term stress. The problem and the way that you feel are likely to get worse.
So what might help?
The Three Magic Questions
The Three Magic Questions is a tool that many clients find really effective when stuck, overwhelmed with negative emotion, or wanting to avoid. It has its roots in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which focuses heavily on goals and values.
Goals are typically things that people would like to improve, do differently, or achieve. Values can be personal, such as honesty, persistence, courage, loyalty, strength, and compassion. Values can also be things that a person values, like contributing, relationships, achieving, being at peace, good sex, intimacy, etc.
In my practice, goals and values contextualize the work that clients do – it helps keep them focused on what they want and what matters, rather than focusing exclusively on the things that have caused them distress and suffering.
How the tool works.
When you find yourself:
- acting in ways that are messing up your life or relationships
- wishing that things could be different but not knowing how to get there
- overwhelmed by emotions that paralyze you, or cause you to act in way that makes things worse and not better
- having difficulty making choices that are helpful rather than harmful
- avoiding things you’d like to do because of fear and anxiety
- stuck in a rut
- (feel free to add to the list!)
Ask yourself the following three questions:
- What can I do now to make things better in the long-term?
- How can I act to get me closer to meeting my goals?
- How do I act in a way that best aligns with my values, and what I value?
For this to be effective, the key is to make sure you answer all three questions. It requires that you know your goals and values, which is something that people often fail to clarify. So do that first before you address the problem or difficult situation. Keep them in focus. Then work through the questions.
Usually this helps tell you what avenue you should take. Having said that, occasionally things do not work out. And that’s ok. It’s better to act in a way that’s more effective, which can sometimes be risky, than to stay stuck. And if things do blow up in your face, you’ll almost certainly survive and build resilience.
What does this look like in practice?
Here are two examples, one non-sexual, the other sexual:
Say you’re someone who struggles with social anxiety. You’d love to have more friends, as they’re important to you, and a social life would be nice. But your anxiety is stopping you from going out and spending time with people. It sucks.
A friend texts you and invites you to a social get-together with some people you know. Immediately, your anxiety kicks in. What if you say something stupid? What if you have nothing to say at all? What if they think you’re weird or too quiet? What if they don’t like you?
The instinct is to turn down the invitation, or if you do go, to get really drunk to cope. Both options are not particularly helpful in the long-term.
To get unstuck, you would first want to identify your goals and values. Your goal is to meet people and have a better social life. You clearly value friendships and having a social life, despite your anxiety. With those goals and values in mind, the best thing to do is to accept the invitation, despite the anxiety.
And with anxiety, we know that the most effective way to reduce it in the long-term is to do the things that cause the anxiety. Over time, these repeated experiences (i.e., exposure) help us recognize that what we fear most is not likely to happen, and even if it does, we’ll probably be able to cope. As such, anxiety goes down and confidence goes up.
You have a lot of anxiety about sex. It could be about your lack of experience, sexual performance, ability to orgasm, the way you look, ability to communicate, or the desires that you have. Your worries are getting in the way of your sex life. You find that you’re not pursuing sexual experiences that you could be having, and wish you were having. It’s just way too vulnerable and scary.
Your partner, or a potential partner, starts flirting with you. It’s clear where things are heading. Immediately you feel your anxiety kick in. What might happen if you have sex? What if you’re no good? What if you get judged or criticized? What if you disappoint this person? What if you get shamed, or feel ashamed?
As your anxiety builds, all you can think of is ways to avoid having sex. You feel the urge to say or do something to make it clear that you’re not interested. For you, this is a repeated pattern and you’re feeling frustrated, disappointed, and ashamed.
But then you remember your goals and what you value. You want to have a healthy and satisfying sex life. You value sexual experiences and recognize that as a sexual person, sex is a crucial part of your life and intimate relationships. Despite sex being scary, you want it. You also remember that you’ve had great past experiences. You trust that you can again. And you know that avoiding is only making things worse. So you take the plunge. It will be one more experience that gets you closer to what it is that you want. It’s still really scary, but the anticipation is always worse than the doing.
Both of these examples have to do with anxiety, as anxiety is the most common thing I see in my practice. But, the tool works for other negative emotions and experiences too. Once you get a handle of it in one context, it is easily transferred to different difficult situations. Try it out!