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Secondly, and Most Importantly

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when I consider what I have learned by experience (rather than formal education) is that the majority of people’s suffering is due to what I informally call “secondary effects.” Secondary effects are thoughts and emotions about your thoughts and emotions, and for some reason they seem far more devastating than the original thought or feeling.

Let’s take an example.

You went through a divorce a few months ago, and are just now thinking about dating again. You tell a friend, who says she knows of someone who is looking, too. In a fit of courage, you agree to the date. Problem is, as the date approaches, you grow anxious. You are not even sure what dates are like anymore, it’s been so long. And you worry that you might not be ready. These are the primary thoughts and feelings.

Toward the middle of the day, a common thing happens: your thoughts evolve. They go from anxiety about the date to thoughts and feelings about the anxiety. I’m such a loser, you tell yourself. I used to be courageous. I was up for anything five years ago, but now I’m afraid to go out on one small date. What does this mean about me? Does it mean I’m old and boring now? Has this divorce changed who I am fundamentally?

I’m sure the second paragraph is familiar to you. It is the second punch in a one-two punch of negativity. But this sort of thinking and feeling is common to everyone. The interesting thing is that it's extremely comparative in nature. Whether you are comparing yourself to a former version of yourself, an ideal version of yourself, or someone else, secondary thoughts and feelings are rife with comparison. In my opinion, this highlights the extremely social nature of mental illness; in other words, so much of our mental well-being is tied up in what we think we should be, which I have to imagine is planted in us continually from the society around us.

As a final note, this is also why acceptance-based therapies are effective. What they recognize is that the primary feeling—being anxious for a date—is not so bad. Or not so bad compared to the self-torture that comes after it. If we can learn to accept our thoughts and feelings a little—if we can be tolerant of our reactions to things—than we have just eliminated the second, and by far more powerful, punch of negativity.

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