An article by Dr. Heidi Lepper, Ph.D.

The Inner 'Ick'

One of the pieces of living a healthier, happier, more balanced life is understanding a very basic learning process. This is a process so fundamental that virtually all animals learn by it and one that when you fully grasp can be truly life altering. And we engage in many self-destructive, unhelpful, narcissist behaviors because of this process.

I imagine you may have to re-read this piece a few times and let it settle in your mind before you begin to see it in action. It was only a few years ago that I found a way to talk about it in ways that my students found vastly meaningful in their lives though I had been teaching it for many years prior to that. So I am encouraged by that and want now to see if it can benefit you like I know it has for many of my former college students.

Childhood Pain & Fear
In the simplest terms, we humans learn very quickly from those things that take away inner states (inner feelings) we do not like. In other words, if something causes us pain, we learn to avoid that thing. This makes a great deal of sense especially when we are talking about physical pain. For example, did you ever play 'mercy' as a child with a sibling or best friend? How long could you stand having your fingers turned back by another? You learned that once you said "mercy" the pain would next time you could trust that if you said "mercy" the pain would stop. Again, this is very easy to understand. It makes perfect, wonderful sense.

How about when you were a child and you got scared by something, say, on a TV program? You felt a sense of fear and so you may have covered up your eyes and plugged your ears. You essentially turned away from the television and thus your fear was diminished. You learned that you felt better by turning away and so the next time you felt similarly scared you would again cover your eyes and plug your ears. You were not in physical pain but were instead emotionally distressed. You had an inner 'ick' you wanted to get away from. You found that you could do that by stopping whatever was causing fear by tuning it out and covering up your eyes. Again, this process is largely easy to understand.

But this concept is much harder to understand in adolescence and adulthood when oftentimes we are plagued with an inner 'ick' much more complex than that of a child with an intimidating big person or a scary program on television. In adolescence and adulthood, our inner 'ick' generally comes from relationship conflicts, feeling overwhelmed by work, school and life in general, or, feeling unmotivated to do what we need to be doing, or by disgust at ourselves and our behavior, or by social anxiety and so forth.

Avoiding the 'Inner Ick'
As we get older, we learn to avoid experiencing an adverse state (the inner 'ick') by developing alternate behaviors. For example, you might subconsciously say, "I think I am feeling badly but I do not exactly know how or why. I just know I feel 'ick' inside and I want it to stop!" So, if we feel anxious, or upset, or fearful, or distressed about something or some situation, we learn to avoid that thing or situation. And when we do so (avoiding that is), the anxiety or upset or fear or distress we were experiencing diminishes and we feel better. We repeat that cycle of turning away from the inner 'ick' by avoiding similar experiences again in the future and finding an alternate behavior in order to feel better. Academically this process is known as 'negatively reinforced behavior,' and all animals learn this way. That is, while in an aversive state, we will engage in behaviors that attempt to make that aversive state stop! Again, it all this makes perfect, protective sense.

Facebook as an Alternate Behavior
Let's put it all of this common sense into a tangible example of something that happens to many of us on a daily basis but that largely undermines our positive growth and experience. With today's exploding social media and networking technology, many of us (myself included) are using sites like Facebook on a daily basis. Sound familiar? Okay. Let's say you are a college student and you really need to buckle down and get to studying for that chemistry exam. But you really don't want to. As a result, you feel anxious over the impending exam and come to feel completely unmotivated to study. This does not feel good, does it? (Your negative thinking cycles kick in and start punishing you inwardly. You are not actually having the time of your life while this is occurring. Instead, you feel pretty crappy.) What's a student to do? So sitting in front of the computer you click over to your Facebook page for a hours go by...but somehow you have indeed felt better in that time. The 'ick' you were feeling about your studies went away temporarily due to the distraction of Facebook. Isn't Facebook cool? The problem though becomes that the next time you feel 'ick,' what might you do? Well click over to Facebook, of course!

We ALL do this from time to time. Some of us do this a great deal. Incredibly, most of us have taken on habitual styles of negative thinking that compel the 'ick' in the first place and then learned ways of avoiding that 'ick' for temporary stretches of time. My purpose though is to put forth the idea that if you change that style of thinking, you will not have the inner 'ick' in the first place; and, without the 'ick' there is no need for Facebook (sorry Facebook, this really is not an admonishment of you!). And then you will have more time to stay engaged in those acts and situations you thought were icky and impossible.

Now many of you reading this may not be students, but you may be an office worker or professional instead. You may be a parent or a lover. You may want to lose weight or be a better person. Regardless, for many it is SO much easier to click over to Facebook then to have to sit down in front of your spouse for a dialogue you believe will be very difficult; or, buckle down and get a report done you find dreadfully boring; or, get up out of bed to do twenty push ups. You know what I'm talking about.

Here's my advice
I want you to consider that whenever you click over to Facebook you have not taken an opportunity to grow in a vital way. I want you to realize that, for the most part, the inner 'ick' is quite temporary. It stems from negative thinking and indeed it stems from a negative overall style. In the same way, the benefit of a few hours of Facebook also fades and you are still left with that thing you need to accomplish.

Here's what you can do instead:

  1. Appreciate the 'ick.' When viewed in a positive way it can serve two purposes: to show you when you are being negative in your thinking style and need to find a positive 'tweak' and also that this is a time to engage instead of turn away!
  2. About that positive 'tweak'...when you recognize the 'ick' and the potential to turn away to Facebook, you are more likely to stay engaged because you now know that you will come to teach yourself something better! You will be learning the skill of positive thinking and behaving, which ultimately is going to lead to a much healthier, happier, more balanced life. (Again, sorry Facebook!).
  3. Use a timer. Really! The inner 'ick' really is a temporary state. It does not last long, but it is, in fact, strong enough to get you to turn away initially because you have done that so many times in the past! You have to recognize the 'ick' as a "state" that truly is temporary. When you do, the 'ick' will not actually overwhelm you. It can't because the 'ick' is a product of your own thinking and not actually anything outside of yourself. So, set a timer! Do that for ten minutes and you will see that after just a few minutes you are already in the flow of that task you were so dreading that now you don't want to stop and the 'ick' is actually gone! You then realize that most times in the past you went for your Facebook behavior before you even gave yourself a chance.
  4. Thwart the 'ick' before it starts with a daily morning mood booster. I personally like to use music. Every time I listen to tunes that I like my body and brain respond in a positive way and the morning fatigue or negative mood lifts. Keep in mind that the majority of people wake to a bit of fatigue and sour mood, moods generally lift during the day. But you can facilitate the process by boosting yourself every morning.

    Some other ideas that may work for you to boost initial morning mood:

    • Feign a positive 'lilt' in your voice when you say good morning to your mate or family. They will respond with a smile, and your will respond back with a smile, works that well.

    • The pencil trick works wonders as well...again put a pencil in between your teeth as you would the stem of a rose and feign a smile...within a few minutes your mood will begin to lift.

    • Morning devotionals work well for many people or jotting down something about the day you feel grateful for.

    • A hug, a good old-fashioned hug works every time...we get so rushed during the morning that sometimes we fail to connect truly with our soulmate or family on that positive level...that being said, look your family in the eye when you talk, we have a tendency not to stop and really look and listen...and when we do, it lifts each family member up for the rest of the day.

So again to recap quickly...when we turn away from negative states driven by negative thinking styles and not by the reality in our own world, we might feel better temporarily but we deprive ourselves of living a balanced, positive life. We live so much better when we face that inner 'ick' and deal firmly with the task or issue at hand rather than running away from it to Facebook.

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Copyright © 2009 Dr. Heidi Lepper, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.