by Tara Deliberto
While new Western treatments incorporating the use of mindfulness techniques have an emphasis on decreasing control, many practitioners and patients alike are confused by the apparent increase in control over thoughts and emotions it fosters.
By increasing one's awareness of the thoughts, bodily sensations, and interaction between the two, one creates distance between the mind and what is produced by the body. This naturally produces an increasing sense of mastery over the self, which in essence is control. If you are able to focus your attention on your left pinkie toe during a meditation, for example, you are absolutely controlling your thoughts.
Now, if meditation fosters control of the mind and has been shown by numerous studies to be extremely effective in treating psychological disorders, why is control generally considered to be a bad thing? Why do third wave treatments proudly claim to decrease control? Well, when people attempt control techniques such as forcefully suppressing thoughts or changing their environment in a service to avoid their emotions, it generally leads to more suffering. This type of control, which is likely mediated by absolutes or black and white thinking, is what I like to think of as ineffective control. It doesn't allow for the experience of emotions. This is what mindfulness-based treatments decrease. While people may actively try and control their experience by using alcohol to avoid emotions, for example, those who overuse this strategy and are labeled alcoholics are typically said to be "out of control." Used in this way, the phrase "out of control" implies a lack of mindful control over the attempts to ineffectively control one's emotions.
Conversely, learning to mindfully control one's attention has been shown to be a favorable strategy in coping with a very wide range of problematic behaviors. It also does not involve black and white thinking. There is an emphasis on being aware of one's thoughts, bodily sensations, and experiences, without actively trying to change what cannot be changed. The difference between trying to control one's experience through the suppression of emotions versus through active focus on present are extreme; however, (if you ask me) both are technically control strategies. The latter type of strategy though, leaves room for the experience of negative emotions and thoughts when avoiding them would lead to more struggling. This is effective and adaptive.
It should be noted, however, that avoiding negative emotions may be a very favorable strategy on some occasions - for example, a woman may avoid continuing to feel negative emotions brought on by an abusive husband by leaving. In my experience some mindfulness practitioners actually misapply the idea that one should experience negative emotion by encouraging clients to endure painful situations when in reality, their patients are actually avoiding another set of negative emotions such as loneliness or fear of the unknown. It is tolerance to this latter set of emotions that needs to be fostered. Eagerness in encouraging clients to experience any negative emotions must be curbed with reason and a careful examination of what types of emotions are functional to avoid. Strict adherence to any set of rules without individual reasoning is certainly not favorable.
In the literature and when discussing attempts to change one's experience from what it has been, I think techniques should be labeled as ineffective control strategies or mindfully aware control strategies on an individual and situational basis.