Correctional work is hard. With all of the challenges that routinely confront us in the correctional setting, we have been even more burdened by the restrictions of the pandemic as well as the real fears and uncertainty associated with it. Many of us are experiencing an overflow of negative emotions. We feel more irritated, frustrated, impatient, less forgiving, and less content.
We are aware of an increase in negative feelings and know that we really should do something to change our lives, but adding yet another responsibility to our already hectic week is too much. I’m here to offer a solution that involves changing how you react to your negative thoughts and feelings, rather than creating yet another item for your to-do list.
Fighting Reality Philosophers and religious writers tell us that suffering arises from attachment to our desires and our suffering ceases when attachment to our desires ceases. In other words, we experience distress because we become invested in wanting something. Lately, we are attached to the wish for life to return to normal. We’re attached to the desire not to be afraid of the COVID virus and for it to simply disappear. We likely have this response to countless things that we do not like—whether it’s our work, our worries, or our physical pain.
Yet, pain exists. There will always be pain in life—physical, emotional, and mental. However, we make it worse by magnifying our pain through wanting something else. It’s not just that we don’t want the pain, we focus on not wanting it. We put vast amounts of effort into wishing that life was different and then fighting the reality.
Usually, when we have unwanted pain—a negative emotion or an ache in our lower back—we either attempt to push it away or try to fix it. There are problems with both of these approaches:
• The first approach is that avoidance, and denial results in the problem coming back.
• The second approach is that working to “fix” a problem can result in rumination, thus focusing too much both on the pain and the solution.
Tilting Garage With a mind that needs to solve problems, I am attached to “finding solutions.” It’s my nature and,
When there’s a challenge—even a challenge that has nothing to do with me—I set my mind to fixing or solving it. Take, for example, my garage. A few years ago, my garage was tipping to the side so much that it was a challenge to get the garage door to go up and down. I know absolutely nothing about buildings or construction, but my mind went on the warpath. How do I fix a tilting garage?
Day after day, night after night, my mind tried to find solutions. I lost sleep; I drew pictures. I searched online, and then finally called a contractor. Now, you’d think that would have solved my problem—just give it to someone else to fix— but it didn’t. The contractor explained to me that his plan was to jack up one side of my garage and support the wall to straighten it. Great. But how? How do you “jack up” a wall? How do you straighten it? That’s right. I went down the rabbit hole of trying to calculate how he was going to do it. Awake more nights, drawing more pictures. Ugh.
In those moments, I tried to just “let it go.” I really did. I tried to avoid thinking about my garage. I tried distraction. I even looked into how much it would cost to just destroy the garage and build a whole new one. I pushed and pushed to make it go away, but that just made it worse. I was living proof that attachment—in this case to my desire to understand how to fix a tilting garage—causes suffering.
So, what to do? When we are faced with pain or discomfort (or a tilting garage), we have only two choices: accept it or change it. By accepting, I don’t mean giving up. Neither do I suggest fixing it. I am talking about actively accepting a problem as real or actively changing how we react to a problem. While we think of acceptance and change as opposites, they really are not. They are two sides to the same coin. And that coin is “action.” In order to reduce suffering, we need to take action, and that is not necessarily taking physical action. Our action may be to accept our reality or to change our perspective on the issue.
Rather than getting stuck in thinking the same painful thoughts over and over again, or fighting negative emotions, or beating ourselves up for our inability to change things, we can simply become curious about our thought and feelings.
Acceptance and Commitment In psychology, there is a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This therapy focuses on how we relate to our thoughts and feelings, rather than focusing on our thoughts and feelings themselves. Think about that for a minute: the focus is on how we react to our thoughts and feelings. This is not about changing our thoughts and feelings; instead, we change our reaction to them. It’s also about finding the balance of living in a world where life is not perfect.
Every day, we are confronted with challenges at work, at home, in our bodies, and in our minds. Those challenges are real. ACT does not expect us to ignore our challenges or deny reality. Instead, ACT invites us to take a look at our thoughts and feelings about those challenges and then consider changing how we react. Without getting into the therapy part, I want to discuss how we can apply these concepts to our everyday selves to experience better living.
First, we need to notice and become aware of our thoughts and feelings. And the best way to do this is to use a skill called mindfulness. Mindfulness involves observing our thoughts and feelings without changing them. That’s easier said than done for most of us, especially when we do not like what we are thinking and feeling.
One great strategy that supports mindfulness is curiosity—a strength that everyone of us possesses. Rather than getting stuck in thinking the same painful thoughts over and over again, or fighting negative emotions, or beating ourselves up for our inability to fix or change things, we can simply become curious about our thoughts and feelings.
It’s like taking a step back from yourself and becoming an observer of your thoughts and feelings rather than a participant. You simply notice your physical reactions when you have uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. For example, you can note how your teeth clench and your shoulders become tight when you’re frustrated with that one colleague who just never shows up on time.
Curiosity allows us to awaken our minds with a desire to learn more. It opens us up. We can look at ourselves as someone interesting, someone to understand, and someone to observe. Remember, however, that curiosity is always paired with uncertainty.
In order to be curious, part of the picture isn’t clear and this can be unsettling. Most of us don’t necessarily like not knowing what comes next. This can be especially true for those of us who work in correctional settings, as safety and order often rely on knowing what comes next. We feel comfortable with procedures and protocols and knowing how to act when an incident occurs. However, this is not always the best course of action when it comes to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
If you are able to move toward curiosity about your inner self, the “unknown” becomes something you want to move toward instead of away from. This is why we get sucked into binge watching a show, episode after episode, or reading a good book until 2 a.m. We want to find out what happens next. Curiosity is driven by not knowing and becoming excited to learn more.
Curious Explorers Psychologist and author Todd Kashdan (2009) encourages us all to become what he calls curious explorers: “Curious explorers are comfortable with the risks of taking on new challenges. Instead of trying desperately to explain and control our world, as a curious explorer we embrace uncertainty, and see our lives as an enjoyable quest to discover, learn, and grow.”
Once we can observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment—just using our curiosity—we give ourselves a choice. We can choose how we want to react to those thoughts and feelings based on our values and what we want to occur in the long run. Do we really want to allow someone else’s behavior or words to get stuck in our heads and our guts, causing us stress for
the rest of the day? Or do we want to see our thoughts and feelings, accept them, and then move on?
Imagine that you had a really difficult day at work. Then, on your way home, you get stuck in traffic because there is a car accident. You just want to get home, remove your work clothes, and relax. But you can’t, because now you’re trapped in the car. You start thinking about what you need to do when you get home, all the stress you experienced during your day, and how you just cannot catch a break.
By the time you arrive home, you are angry, tired, and short-tempered. You walk in the door and your child runs to greet you with exciting news from her day. However, you are so fixated on your own stress that you snap, “Not now! Give me a minute!” and head to the shower.
In this example, you have reacted to your thoughts and feelings. You have acted without thinking about what you value most. You value your child and want to know what happened today that was so exciting. You want to be a part of your family—an active part, a good part, a good parent. But your negative thoughts and feelings took control, and you didn’t even realize it. Gifts to Ourselves Mindfulness and curiosity can be gifts that we give ourselves and those we love. It’s the first necessary step to making different choices and giving ourselves more options than merely reacting. In fact, simply being curious already changes our reactions. Looking at and being curious about our thoughts and feelings changes how we react to them. It puts more space between those experiences and how we react.
Acceptance includes change and change includes acceptance. In the aforementioned example, if you had taken a moment to examine your thoughts and feelings before
getting out of the car, you may have recognized them as a normal response to a stressful day. And you would have realized that you needed to let go of them before you walked in the house. You may have remembered how much you value your family and then chose to leave those thoughts and feelings in car. Accept the day was stressful, then move toward better moments.
Mindfulness and curiosity are not easy. They require intention and lots of practice. Here is a daily exercise that I do to help my curiosity. I set my electronic watch to vibrate once each day. I change the time but right now it’s set to 4:39 p.m., so at that time every day it vibrates on my wrist. That’s my cue to stop and observe where I am—both outside and inside.
I take a few seconds to be present, mindful, and curious. I let myself just observe without changing. It’s like building strength and developing a skill. After performing this practice, I discovered that I am open to more choices in my day—to choose when to accept and when to change. I invite you to give it a try.
Sharen Barboza, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist working in correctional mental health for more than 25 years. She is a monitor, consultant, trainer, researcher, and speaker with expertise in crisis management, suicide risk, self-injury reduction, trauma-informed care as well as stress management and self-care for staff. She holds a master’s degree from Tufts University; a doctorate from Fairleigh Dickinson University; and is certified in Wholebeing Positive Psychology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. New York: Harper-Collins.
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