Central to how I think and work is the idea that there two basic levels of experience. The primary level consists of feelings we all have, to one degree or another: varying degrees of pleasure, excitement, joy, stimulation, contentedness, and also of pain, sadness, anger, fear, and anxiety. These feelings are inevitable; an inherent part of what it means to be a human being. For the most part, these are normal, natural human emotions.

The secondary level, or meta-level, involves the reaction to the primary level, including our thoughts and feelings about our primary level of experience. This level often includes our judgments, our fears, and our impulses to escape, avoid, or block what can seem too scary, painful, threatening, uncomfortable, or overwhelming. In this way, we (often unconsciously) fear or judge our normal human responses, and then try to block or escape them.

So here’s the point: The (secondary level) thoughts and feelings we have about or in response to our primary level of experience dictate how we experience those primary level emotions.

Example #1: Judging ourselves for feeling down can create deeper depression. “I must be weak to be so down. I can’t see an end to this pain. There’s nothing I can do--there’s nothing anyone can do--to make it better.” These thoughts represent classic depressive thinking, which deepens and perpetuates the depression: helplessness, hopelessness, isolation, no sense of a time limit, no sense of internal locus of control, negative generalizing, and self-judgment.

Example #2: Fearing our anxiety can lead to panic. “Oh my God, I’m losing control, I don’t know if this will ever stop! I’m gonna lose it!” These thoughts create even more anxiety, and risk triggering the rapid, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, dry mouth, heart palpitations, light-headedness, and desperation of a panic attack.

Or we simply try to avoid these painful or uncomfortable feelings. Our most common methods of blocking or escape are drugs, alcohol, food, sex, the internet, T.V., and work. And then we get addicted to these methods of escape.

(This is the “double whammy” of addiction: something is deeply painful, threatening, uncomfortable, or overwhelming, and we then get addicted to the means of escape/numbing from those feelings.)

The Challenge is to tolerate and allow the primary level of experience, so we can move through the feelings more naturally. We have so many messages from our various cultures and role models that tell us to judge, fear, or avoid these feelings, but I believe the way out of uncomfortable emotion is through it. To do so, we have to achieve a certain measure of self-acceptance, a fundamental challenge we all face.

Postscript: As a client of mine pointed out, this concept is much more elegantly described in the formula:

E + R = O

where E = experience, R = response, and O = outcome.

This formula may originate with Jack Canfield, but that is not definitive. Let me know if you learn something further on this.