When I talk to someone struggling with sleep, the conversation almost always turns immediately to the topic of how to fix insomnia. Well, that’s obvious. Who wants to lie in bed awake all night? But have you ever thought about if this “fixing-approach” is working for your sleep problem? If this problem-solving approach might be even contributing to your struggle?
If not, I would like to invite you to rethink your fixing agenda and take a completely different approach that involves learning some new skills.
What have you been trying to fix your insomnia?
If you have trouble sleeping, there is a good chance that you’re trying to desperately get rid of the unhelpful thoughts and emotions at night and think, “If I could just switch off my mind!”
And maybe you’ve tried various things to make that happen. You may have changed your sleep environment and your diet, implemented long sleep rituals, started a new workout or relaxation routine, and may even rely on pills. But does it work?
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Often, these changes don’t only affect your daily routine at home, but also your social life and the way you work. While I had insomnia, I was at a point where I refused to go out with friends and worried that this would jeopardize my daily wind-down routine.
Is your current approach to cure insomnia working?
So you’ve tried practically everything that is supposed to work (and if these strategies worked – I mean not only for one or two nights but to sleep better lastingly – then that’s great!)
Okay, maybe you’ve found a way to mute your thoughts and feelings that has worked for a while in the past. But here you are again, reading these words and still wishing for some magic formula to make them go away.
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However, if you still find yourself wide awake in bed at night with a racing mind, then it’s time to rethink your strategy on how to approach your sleeplessness.
It’s almost as if there is something fishy going on; despite all the efforts to calm your mind, not have those disturbing thoughts and feelings – they are still here. You may think that you just can’t seem to move on. And I bet you’ve told yourself that one too that you just need to move on, to just get over it. But does it work?
Does trying to make the pain go away work?
I can very much relate to the desire to escape discomfort. I know that struggle and how painful it is, and how much it costs. In fact, if I would sit next to you right now and you would tell me about your sleep struggle, I would want nothing more than to make it better for you, to ease your pain.
Or to put it this way: it would be nice for both of us if I could tell you I have a way to make your sleeplessness and the pain go away, but again – would that work?
The answer is No. That would just be another thing to add to the long list of what you’ve been trying to do to get rid of insomnia. So, on the one hand, I really feel for the struggle you’re in, and on the other, I know that anything I would do to try to take your pain away would just be another unworkable strategy.
What if trying not to experience what you’re experiencing, is what makes you suffer?
This is not about trying to convince you; I want you to go into yourself, draw from your own experience. Be really honest with yourself. And if you’re feeling that your current approach is not working, then what I want to put out here is this;
What if trying to get over it, trying not to experience what you’re experiencing, is actually not the solution but the fundamental problem? What if having difficult thoughts and emotions isn’t what keeps you awake but trying to get over them; trying not to experience what you’re experiencing, is what makes you suffer?
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In other words, not the existence of challenging thoughts and feelings is the culprit of the suffering but how you relate to them. Because the truth is that trying to make unwanted thoughts, feelings, memories, or sensations go away doesn’t work – not for you, not for me, not for anyone.
Why trying to get rid of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings keep you stuck
We have all learned to regard unwanted experiences as intolerable and abnormal. This feel-good agenda is what the culture has been teaching us since we could first talk: “Just control your thoughts. Stop being so negative. Think more positively.”
That’s why we are so focused on the overarching idea that we are not supposed to be uncomfortable inside; that’s something wrong is occurring if we are experiencing painful thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations. You’ve thought that this has been about you that there is something wrong with you because you haven’t been able to get over it.
And so we try everything we can to rid ourselves of them. But this is a trap because the simple truth is this;
Psychological suffering is inevitably interwoven into human life. It’s part of being human to experience pain and internal discomfort. There is no magic wand that will effortlessly free you from all your problems. So the feel-good agenda isn’t working and can even work against you because it keeps you trapped in a struggle you can’t win.
I know this may not be what you want to hear at this moment; it may be unpleasant or surprising or disturbing news for you, but it is not bad news. I mean that just because I point out that there is no solution to the pain that comes with not getting enough sleep doesn’t mean that you resign yourself to claiming that it’s all pointless.
But if you have trouble sleeping and experiencing a lot of unhelpful thoughts and feelings while being awake, it’s useful to be willing to have this experience without defense and make room for them.
Try these three steps: notice, register, and label your thoughts and emotions
I know that’s not easy and so it’s better to be prepared. I want to invite you to try it out right now; just notice what you’re experiencing at this very moment while you’re reading these words without trying to change or resolve it somehow. Simple notice, register and label your thoughts and emotions. Willingly come into contact with them and register them as sensations in your body.
Maybe you will feel some relief, perhaps not – either way is okay. But to willingly experience whatever your mind and body give you, is liberating. If you keep pushing difficult thoughts and emotions away from you and giving yourself a hard time for feeling or thinking a certain way, you end up feeling not only the original pain of the challenging feeling or thought but a whole lot of extra pain on top of that – frustration, annoyance, guilt, shame, the list goes on.
While all this is going on, you deprive yourself of energy and vitality. Whereas if you accept what’s going on inside you, you stop generating extra pain through struggle. Keep in mind that your thoughts and feelings are not harmful; it’s your attempt to fight with your inner experience that poses a risk, not your thoughts and emotions themselves.