Occasionally, a client shows up to a session with a guilty look on their face.

They report that they didn’t engage with the self-awareness practices they’d committed to as many times as they’d planned, and they think they failed at their homework.

In response, I ask them: What did you do instead? And, how do you feel?

To their surprise, my clients frequently share that they feel better.

Sometimes, they discover a fascinating new television show, engross themselves in a novel, go roller skating with their kids, bake a pie, or even (gasp!) scroll through social media.

Whatever their unique response to their bodies’ plea for a break from what’s bothering them, by doing something fun and distracting, my clients have heeded their bodies’ request.

Sometimes, to meet our needs for peace, calm, comfort, nurturing, soothing, space, or protection, we need to take a break from diving deep into our challenging feelings and do something fun.

Sometimes, it’s okay to distract ourselves. As research shows, distraction is one of the primary ways we humans turn down the volume of our emotional distress.[1]

But what if you’re concerned that your distracting behaviors aren’t that great for you?

The key to discerning the difference between distraction that serves us and avoidance that drains us is to check in with ourselves briefly and ask.

Ask Your Body

If you feel pulled to distract yourself from the hard stuff in your life, I encourage you to pause for a moment and ask yourself:

What might feel good now? What might help me feel even a little bit better now? If I do this distracting thing that I’m thinking of doing, am I likely to feel worse afterward or better?

If you still feel uncertain, writing down your body’s responses may help you hear them better.

Make guesses about what might help, asking your body: “Body, would you like to take a walk? Listen to a podcast? Eat an ice cream cone? Watch some tv? Journal some more? Call a friend?”

Make your guesses slowly, doing your best to notice when you feel a sense of resonance or relief or other sign from your body that you’ve landed on something that may help.

But what if you don’t trust your body?

But what if your body pulls you to do something that you don’t think is in your best interest?

For example, what if your body wants to eat ice cream, but you’re trying to lose weight? Or your body wants to binge Netflix, but you’re trying to complete a huge project?

If that happens, remember that underlying every single request from your body is an unmet need. And dominant culture disparages many of these needs. For example, fatphobia and patriarchy teach women to ignore their need for pleasure and restrict their consumption of deliciousness. Meanwhile, capitalism and productivity culture insist that we must constantly produce and never rest.

Repressing our needs leads many people to see-saw between all-or-nothing, between binging or purging.

So, rather than denying your body’s pleas or diving so deep to saying yes that you later feel crappy, ask yourself:

How might I say yes to my body’s request for distraction in a way that feels good? What teeny, tiny, baby step might be possible in the direction of feeling better? See if you can take even the tiniest of steps.

Once you find an idea that resonates with your body, choose the next baby step toward feeling better that feels possible now.

But what if it’s not possible to distract myself in a way that feels good?

What if your body says no to everything? What if you cannot find a single step toward feeling better? What if you feel despair, so you distract yourself with scrolling or binge-watching in an attempt to escape? 

If this is the case, I invite you to play with offering yourself impossible dream guesses. An impossible dream guess is a question that usually begins with the words “Would you love it if…” followed by a guess about something that would be completely impossible but very lovely.

For example, Would you love it if you suddenly had a completely different boss who got how tired you all are and declared that the next month was vacation for everyone?  

Or, Would you love it if you woke up tomorrow and received an email from the mayor announcing that she had completely transformed her budget and fully funded the schools?

Or, Would you love it if you and I could find a great big magic wand and, together, magically make all your troubles evaporate into thin air?

I invite you to read these impossible dream guesses again and notice how your body responds. Sometimes, when we cannot figure out how to make our problems go away, the most helpful thing to do is imagine.

My Final Message Today

You don’t always need to dive deep to feel better. Sometimes, we don’t need to talk about the hard stuff. Sometimes, we just need to do something that feels better.

Especially if we’re engaged in emotionally draining work like fighting for trans rights or caring for dying patients or holding space for many other peoples’ hard stuff every day, we sometimes need a break.

Consider this your permission slip to do what feels good.

[1] Lieberman, M.D., Inagaki, T.K., Tabibnia, G., & Crockett, M.J. (2011). Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction. Emotion, 11(3), 468-480. Doi: 10.1037/a0023503.


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