“Today, we’re going to practice something called ‘refraining,’” I said to my client in a session focused on building his repertoire of tools for dealing with intense emotions.
“Restraining?” the client asked with a quizzical and not-too-thrilled look.
I had to laugh: “It does sound like that, doesn’t it?”
Refraining—a concept drawn from Buddhism and mindfulness practice—sounds pretty awful, right? The word conjures something restrictive, withholding, even punitive . Nomenclature aside, refraining is actually one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves.
Refraining simply means not giving in to our every impulse. Not trying to think, act, or distract our way out of noticing and experiencing what’s really happening for us in the moment.
This is something we can all relate to. We feel sad, so we eat ice cream to soothe ourselves. We feel angry, and then quickly tell ourselves we don’t have a right to this feeling. We feel anxious, so we dive into a work project that will capture our attention. We don’t know the answer to something, so we immediately look it up online. We have an itch, and we scratch it.
In and of themselves, these things we do are neither “good” nor “bad.” Some would call these “coping skills,” and we can and should honor without judgment the ways that we try to protect ourselves, soothe ourselves, give ourselves comfort, and, in some cases, keep ourselves from unraveling.
But let’s also honor the notion that it’s OK to feel. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s OK to not know. It’s OK to be itchy for 10 seconds instead of two. It’s even OK to fall apart sometimes.
When we immediately try to take these experiences away, we ignore important things that are going on within us. We also reinforce a message of “I can’t handle it” – which makes us even more likely to move further away from ourselves the next go-round.
Try this exercise…
For the next minute, sit upright, breathe as you normally would, and start to pay attention to your body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and anything else you notice. Maybe it’s a sound or smell. Maybe an image comes to mind. Just notice these experiences, but try not to act on them. If your arm is sore, refrain from rubbing it. If you start to feel sad, refrain from trying to think of something that will make you laugh. If you hear a loud sound, refrain from trying to shy away from it. If your phone rings, refrain from picking it up or looking to see who might be calling.
What do you notice? Was that difficult? Easy? Can you imagine a scenario in which it would have been more challenging? What is it that you have difficulty refraining from?
Giving ourselves this momentary pause does two things:
- It lets us see more clearly what’s happening for us in the present; and
- It lets us know we can tolerate whatever it is that is happening within us.
And the more you practice this, the more you’ll be able to tolerate what is.
Therapists understand this notion pretty well because they, too, struggle with refraining. One of the hardest things to learn for beginning psychotherapists is to get comfortable with silence. To be OK with a pause in the back-and-forth that is so often dramatized in TV’s version of therapy sessions. It’s tempting when someone is crying to try to take away her sadness. It’s tempting to answer a client’s direct question about what he should say to his friend with whom he’s arguing. But when a therapist can refrain from filling this space, it helps clients tune into their thoughts, their experiences, and their emotions. And some pretty amazing things can happen for people when given this space and time.
So, be kind to yourself today and give yourself the occasional gift of refraining. By doing so, you’re giving yourself the space to be however and whoever you are – even if you don’t think you particularly like how or who you are in this moment. You might be surprised at what you find.