The notion of “giving up” as the secret to success seems to be antithetical to every feel-good-pick-yourself-up inspirational story in history. How short (and lame!) would the movie “Rudy” have been if Rudy had just given up when he ran into his first roadblock in becoming a football player? How uninspiring would a Nike commercial be if Michael Jordan quipped, “It’s not how many times you fall down. It’s about how many times you g...actually, just stay down”. Or if some politician stood up on the debate stage and talked about how the great ‘American Dream’ is to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and stop trying. No, we love a good story of someone who faced unparalleled odds and never gave up hope. How, through trial and tribulation, they arrived at their prized destination, with an abundance of tears celebrating their momentous victory.
So what’s this nonsense about “giving up” as the secret to winning at life?
Well, we first have to talk about two different categories of problems that exist in life. There are problems that exist in the material world, the physical world, and there are problems that exist in the non-material world, the non-physical world. For problems that exist in the material world, problem solving works phenomenally well. Have a flat tire? Change it! Drop your phone and crack the screen? Buy a new phone! Open your fridge and see there’s no food? Go shopping! No one in their right frame of mind would see these problems and encourage someone to accept these as their new reality. “Oh, you got a flat tire? I guess you’ll just have to drive with a flat tire for the rest of your life”. This would be a ridiculous proposition. In all of these above problems, you’d go out and try to solve the problem. You’d try to control the problem.
But what happens when it comes to problem solving for non-material problems? These are problems that often exist in the internal world, the world of thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations. Let’s say you have thoughts that are distressing or upsetting. Can you change them the way you might change a tire? Of if you have painful emotions. Can you just swap those out for other emotions, the way you might swap out an old phone for a new one? Or if you have distressing or uncomfortable memories. Can you buy new memories the way you might buy groceries? It goes without saying that our efforts at controlling our pain in this way are unlikely to translate to the changes we might hope for.
So what does this amount to? In the world of material problems, control is the solution. In the world of non-material problems, control is the problem. How so? Let’s do a quick exercise together and I’ll show you.
Until you finish reading the following question, I can all but guarantee that you will not have been thinking of the answer. But as soon as you finish reading the question, some thoughts will begin popping into your mind.
"What did you have for dinner last night?"
While you were likely not thinking about your dinner last night while reading this blog post, I’d imagine you’re thinking about it now. Can you picture it? Imagine the taste? The smell? Perfect. Now, for the next sixty seconds, I’d like you to forget what you had for dinner last night. I’d like you to ensure that your thoughts about your dinner do not enter your mind. For even a second. Ready? Go!
While you can quite freely bring a memory into your consciousness, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to get something out of your consciousness. Sure, you can try to distract yourself with something else to occupy your mind, but if you successfully stop thinking about your dinner last night, it’s less likely that you “controlled” the memory and more likely that your mind “let go” of that memory in it’s contact with some other internal or external experience. But the harder you try to “not think” something, the more likely it is that the memory will create a permanent fixture in your mind.
Many internal experiences we have are quite painful. In fact, if you polled a thousand people and asked them if they have thoughts, memories, or emotions that cause them pain, even in the present moment, you’d likely get a thousand resounding “Yeses”. But if pain is so ubiquitous, why isn’t everyone walking around in distress all the time? This brings up an important distinction between pain and suffering. To highlight this difference, I’ll tell you a little anecdote.
Imagine someone wants to go out for a long jog. He doesn’t want to be disturbed so he leaves his phone at home. At the furthest point from home, it starts to rain. Hard. One of those cold spring rains. He has no raincoat, no umbrella, no phone, no wallet. He has no choice but to run home in the rain. He is cold, wet, and miserable. His running shoes are filled with water and he is soaked to the bone. A really unpleasant experience. Finally, he gets home but he realizes his wife locked the door, and he doesn’t have keys, so he finds himself standing outside his house in the rain. So now he’s cold, wet, miserable, and angry. Angry at himself for forgetting to check the weather. Angry at himself for leaving his phone and keys at home. Angry at his wife for locking the door. Angry at God for making it rain. Finally, an hour later his wife comes home and unlocks the door. He goes inside, dries off, puts on some warm clothes, gets a nice hot cup of coffee, and sits by the roaring fireplace. He is now dry and warm. But he’s still angry. Really angry. Why is he so angry if he’s dry and warm inside his house?
Because, in his mind, he’s not dry and warm inside his house. In his mind, he’s still outside in the rain, having a wildly unpleasant physical and emotional experience. By being “hooked” into his experience in the rain, he continues to relive it--keeping the experience of pain active in his mind and body. This is the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the result of the presence of an undesirable or distressing physical or emotional stimulus. Suffering occurs when someone gets so consumed by their pain that they are unable to experience anything else. Their pain begins to drive their experience.
In many cases, suffering is the outgrowth of the struggle against pain. The harder we try to control, avoid, or distract from our pain, the more it seems to take a hold over our lives. As we begin to exert more and more energy into controlling these painful experiences, the less and less energy we have to dedicate to living our lives by our values, thus contributing to the experience of suffering. It’s difficult to invest your whole self in the choices that might bring reward and enjoyment to your life if significant portions of your mental energy are dedicated to the struggle against your painful experiences.
So how do we bring in the idea of “giving up” back into this equation? What does “giving up” mean in this context? It’s about learning to step out of the struggle against the things that lay outside of your control. It’s about learning to “unhook” from the parts of our experiences that are painful. This does not remove the presence of the pain, but allows you to step out of the struggle against it, and as such, out of the experience of suffering. As Haruki Murakami once said (though a version of this quote is linked to the Dalai Lama), “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” In thinking about the countless experiences every single person has in their lives that can be a source of pain, there are endless opportunities for someone to get “caught in the struggle”.
So what is the secret to winning at life? Learning to “give up” against the parts of our experience that we don’t have control over and persevering over the things we do have control over. It’s about learning to accept the parts of our experiences that are painful while maintaining contact with our values and agency over our choices. Through this kind of “giving up”, we can “unhook” from our pain and move towards what matters most.
This, in a nutshell, is what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is all about.