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Dr Carrie Hayward 4 min

Feeling Good vs Doing Good

“I wonder what would happen if we were to switch our attention from what is comfortable to what is meaningful?” I asked Sarah who was sitting, somewhat slumped, on the couch opposite me. Her eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?” Confusion washed over her face. Sarah had arrived at her psychology session that day appearing weary. She is a primary school teacher and was overwhelmed by the beginning of the new school year. Many of her students were exhibiting challenging behaviours, no doubt underpinned by anxiety and the other big feelings that like to accompany change. Sarah was therefore experiencing her own anxiety. She had begun to dread going to work each day. She described the worry that would sneakily creep into bed with her each evening– her mind desperately trying to predict the challenges that would loom the next day. She was exhausted by the uncertainty and lack of control around her students’ behaviour. What Sarah was struggling with is a classic example of our mind’s prerequisite for comfort and control. And therefore, our attention often being in the wrong place. I continued to explain further… You see, the mind’s primary job is to attempt to control or prevent potential danger. This is part of our survival response – the response that prepares the body with physiological changes to react to potential threat. This adaptive and automatic response was necessary for our primitive ancestors, who had to react quickly to external threats to stay alive. Accordingly, the mind will interpret the physiological changes (and the felt ‘emotion’) in our body as a signal that something is wrong. The mind deems that we are safe only in the absence of emotional discomfort. A by-product of this hardwired need for control is that we are regularly evaluating the ‘goodness’ of our lives based what is going on around us or inside of us. It is as though the mind is operating through a doctrine of ‘I will be okay only if everything around me and inside of me is okay.’ Which is why for many of us, the illusion of a ‘good’ or ‘happy’ life is dependent on life going well. And therefore, on us feeling good. However, the world we live in today is changeable and unpredictable. Life will go wrong for all of us at least some of the time. And when it does, some form of emotional pain will inevitably exist. Our mind therefore struggles – it tries to control what is beyond its control. And so, the remarkable aspect of the human condition that keeps us alive can, paradoxically, work against us when we are experiencing hardship and pain. And this is one of the greatest dilemmas of the human condition. There is another side effect to this dilemma. When our mind’s attention is caught up in trying to control the outside world and how this is making us feel, it can take our attention away from the one thing that we can control – ourselves. That is, our hardwired need for control can often result in a disconnect with ourselves, or our sense of how we are ‘doing’. This has considerable impact given it is through our doing and being – our behaviour and attention – towards ourselves, others and the world around us, that brings meaning to our moments and purpose to our lives. The meaning in our ‘doing’ is experienced through connecting to our core values. Our core values are the qualities we want to stand for. That is, how we ideally want to behave as a human being. It is through behaving according to our values that we find our personal meaning and purpose in our experiences, and in our lives. Therefore, it is when we are disconnected from our values that we can experience the greatest distress. It is what can turn our pain into suffering. It was no wonder that Sarah was experiencing exhaustion. Her mind was struggling with the experiences that she could not control; her nightly worry was her mind’s fruitless attempt to try and predict. This unworkable attempt to try and control what she can’t in life was creating a considerable amount of anxiety in her body. And she was in a relentless battle with this feeling. After unearthing this unworkable attempt at control, Sarah and I spent some time in the session bringing her attention back to herself. In particular, we explored the values that mattered to her in being the teacher she wanted to be. Sarah identified being ‘kind’, ‘calm’ and ‘professional’ as some of her core values. The most significant part of the discussion was when Sarah was able to reflect on how she had been showing up each day in the classroom. Sarah was able to recognise that she had been living these values. That is, despite not being able to directly, nor fully, control the children’s behaviour around her and despite feeling the anxiety inside, she had generally been showing up as the calm, kind, supportive and professional teacher that she wanted to be. Despite not necessarily ‘feeling’ good, Sarah had been ‘doing’ good. And yet, Sarah had been focusing so much on her anxiety that she had been giving little attention to what she had been doing. In particular, to the meaning and value to be found in her doing. We therefore explored how Sarah can shift her attention. I explained that we can bring awareness to both parts of our experience: 1. Acknowledge what we are feeling AND 2. Acknowledge what we have been doing Acknowledging the emotional discomfort that we are feeling allows space to bring acceptance and compassion to our experience. At the same time, we can then switch our attention to the values that we want to be living (or have been living) through our doing. This helps to ground us in a world that we cannot control. It gives us the resilience to cope when life is hard, allowing us to move in a purposeful and meaningful direction, even when our experience may be causing us discomfort and pain. A simple switch of where our attention is allows us to focus on what is meaningful in our experience, even if it is not comfortable. We can see a good life to be one of ‘doing’ good rather than always ‘feeling’ good. And remarkably, this is something that we can always control.   Written by a specialist in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the Being Human series features four narratives that delve into the complexities of our shared human experience. Each short, accessible book contains a fictional story about an aspect of being human, followed by teachings and processes for readers to implement in their lives. Together, the four books form the comprehensive Being Human Method, fostering self-awareness, meaningful relationships, and a purposeful existence. Readers will build the psychological resilience and flexibility to live a meaningful life in spite of difficulty, and discover tools to reconnect with others – and themselves. The Being Human Collection is available to purchase from your local independent bookshop and online retailers including Bookshop.org here and the Exisle Publishing website here   Author Q&A can be found in our Spring Issue here .  

Dr Carrie Hayward

Dr Carrie Hayward is a Melbourne-based clinical psychologist whose life’s work is to help individuals live more consciously and purposefully. Specialising in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Carrie advocates for psychological flexibility and resilience in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.