Carlos felt lonely and longed for more time and connection with his wife. He tried to get her to pay more attention to him, but it sounded to her like criticism, which just made their relationship worse. In fact, she withdrew further, leaving Carlos feeling even more lonely and disconnected. As an alternative, his counselor suggested he try behavioral activation to help him break his funk.
A downward spiral
Carlos’s wife had been exceptionally busy lately. The kids demanded a lot of her time. Plus, she was taking her mother to doctor appointments and running errands for her. Carlos understood, but still he missed receiving her attention and affection.
Unfortunately, Carlos took the wrong approach in dealing with his disappointment and loneliness: he criticized her for ignoring him. Sometimes, he got angry when she was too busy. Other times, he shamed her for neglecting him.
Not surprisingly, Carlos ‘s wife did not like his controlling behavior. She felt the pressure he put on her was unfair and lacked empathy for her responsibilities. When she did have free time, she found things to do other than spend time with him. Her response, of course, only added to Carlos’s misery.
Soothing ourselves through behavioral activation
Behavioral activation, Carlos’s counselor explained, is taking action to improve our mood. It’s particularly helpful when we’re facing circumstances that we can’t change. Best of all, it’s something we can do to soothe ourselves when we’re feeling upset. We don’t need to rely on anyone else to help us feel better.
Trying to convince ourselves that we really don’t need to feel sad, lonely, disappointed, frustrated, or anxious often fails. Pressuring others to change their behavior so we don’t feel negative emotions not only doesn’t work, it may feel controlling to them. On the other hand, engaging in certain activities can completely turn our outlook around.
Behavioral activation is cognitive behavioral therapy working in reverse. Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is the concept that our thoughts create emotions, which then drive our actions. Behavioral activation is taking specific actions that create positive emotions inside us.
There are three categories of activities that will help us improve our mood. These are behaviors that align with what’s important to us or activities that we enjoy. Doing things that align with our values, developing skills that we want to master, or spending time on pursuits that bring us pleasure all qualify as behavioral activation.
Finding meaning in pursuing values
Values are areas of our life that are important to us. These might include our health, relationships, career, learning, hobbies, or spirituality. When we pursue goals in these categories, we’ll feel fulfilled because we’re working toward things that are meaningful.
It helps to get clear about our values and determine what actions we can take that are in line with them. Carlos identified physical fitness as one of his most important values and planned an exercise regime to move him toward his goal. Going to the gym to workout became one of the things he could do when his wife was unable to spend time with him.
We usually gain a sense of pride when we develop a level of mastery in some area of our lives. This could be a skill critical to our work, a sport, or a hobby. As we spend time improving our abilities, we also improve how we feel about ourselves.
When he was a boy, Carlos helped his madre with the cooking. However, this is a responsibility that had fallen on his wife after they were married. Carlos decided he wanted to take care over some of the cooking duties—an offer his wife enthusiastically welcomed.
However, he aspired to make exceptional traditional dishes for his family like his mom did. So, he spent extra time experimenting with recipes and honing his cooking techniques. The satisfaction he gained from developing his skills and watching his family enjoy his creations was priceless.
No one needs to explain what pleasure is. Still, what is fun and pleasurable varies from person to person. Pursuing pleasurable activities, when balanced with other more serious responsibilities, is good for us.
As Carlos surveyed a list of recreational activities, he began to narrow that list down to the ones that truly gave him enjoyment. Some of those hobbies were ones he needed to do with his wife or other people. Others, on the other hand, were ones he could pursue himself.
Carlos kept a list of his top 10 pleasure activities that contained a mix of both types. If he found time on his hands, he could choose something from the list based on whether he needed others to participate. Tinkering with his drone became a favorite solo hobby, while playing dominoes was his favorite pastime when a friend or family member was available.
Scheduling behavioral activation
Having behavioral activation activities lined up on a list certainly helps when we need to break free from negative feelings. However, scheduling these items into our daily and weekly routine can prevent us from getting sucked into the unhelpful emotion vortex to begin with. It’s all part of maintaining a healthy balance in our life.
Once Carlos had ways of soothing himself when he was feeling down or lonely, he stopped pressuring his wife to take care of his emotions for him. In turn, his wife was more willing to spend time with him when she did have some available. He ceased being his own worst enemy.
The two of them were then able to discuss his desire for intimacy and her need to care for other family members. Because that discussion happened without resentment, anger, or blame, it went better and they found some middle ground for compromise. It was fine for him to ask for more time together, but it was also fine for her to say no.
He learned he could accept her occasional refusal without feeling rejected. When she was tired or busy, he simply found other valuable or important things he could focus on. Then, he could enjoy their time together when it worked for both their schedules.