Kelly Wilson: ‘You have to embrace your anxieties. What you love the most is also where you’re the most vulnerable’

The American psychologist states that it is healthier to face and accept one’s fears and insecurities than to hide and suppress them

Enrique Alpañés
Kelly Wilson
Psychologist Kelly G. Wilson.

Kelly G. Wilson is not a pessimistic guy, something he stresses several times over the course of a relaxed video call, and which inevitably brings to mind the title of his book Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong, which he co-authored with behavioral therapist Troy DuFrene. His intention is not so much to put himself in the worst-case scenario as it is to embrace fears and coexist with anxiety as a form of therapy. In his youth, Wilson, a psychologist and professor at the University of Mississippi, overcame problems of drug addiction and suicidal thoughts; he later became an academic and a pioneer of acceptance therapies.

His career can be summed up in three letters: ACT. This is the acronym of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a theory that Wilson began to preach in the 1990s and that has gained relevance in the world of psychology over the years. It means that it is better to accept one’s misfortunes instead of avoiding them; to connect with one’s own fears instead of protecting oneself from them. In his book he explains, drawing on experiences and studies, that we should not flee from anxiety. Instead, it is best to just immerse yourself fully in it, sit quietly and look around.

Question. Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong. What a title for a book.

Answer. Well, it’s true enough, isn’t it? If you live long enough, you’ll experience tragedy. I mean, it is an inevitable part of living. And to the extent that you’re engaged in the world, care about it, are passionate about it, to just exactly that extent, you’re vulnerable to loss. I actually am a pretty optimistic person. I think people can get freer. I just am skeptical that the path to becoming freer is ridding oneself of sadness, anxiety and things like that.

Q. And yet, in a certain sector of psychology, they keep repeating the idea that things will go well, that we will emerge stronger, that you can achieve anything you put your mind into...

A. I see that sort of thing on the internet often, people preaching the psychology of self-affirmation. You know, “I’m good enough, I’m lovable.” There isn’t really good evidence that people telling themselves that they’re good enough and that they’re lovable has much effect at all. As a matter of fact, there’s some data out there that suggests the opposite. I know a study where they had kids with low self-esteem and kids with high self-esteem and they had them do this kind of self-affirmation exercise. And on the immediate term, the kids who had high self-esteem felt a little better about themselves momentarily, but the kids who had low self-esteem actually felt a little worse about themselves.

Q. In your book you talk about mindfulness. Why do you think this concept, which has been used for millennia in different religions, has become so popular in recent years?

A. I suppose that there are some really good reasons and also some bad ones. We live in a world that does not lend itself to mindfulness. Everything is about efficiency, you know, quick, quick, get it done, get it done. My watch is tapping me on the wrist, letting me know about the next thing, notifications come up on my phone, the world sort of streams in on us in a way that is unlike any time in history of humanity. We have more access to what’s going on in the world and in ways that sort of actively intrude on our lives. And I think people are hungry for simplicity. Before I met with you in this interview, I spent two hours out on the mountain trails in the desert here. I was out at sunrise. And it was just me and the wildlife that lives in those trails and the sky and the sun. I don’t listen to music or anything. It’s just the sound of my own breath, my feet hitting the ground.

Q. I was on the subway and I took advantage of the trip to answer some emails. It is not always easy to find that time and place to meditate.

A. Yeah, when do we get a chance to pause? We live in a world where you have to be intentional about that. You have to find practices that pause you. Formal sitting meditations are lovely, but those are monastic practices. And for some people they’re great, they’re productive, but there are a lot of ways to practice mindfulness. I always encourage people to find a mindfulness practice that works for them. I’m not really a very good meditator when it comes to sitting meditations. But you can try yoga, running in the countryside, swimming...

Q. When we talk about anxiety, beyond the internal causes, how important are the external, environmental ones?

A. People often presume that many psychological difficulties are basically something that happens inside the organism, but we know that that’s not true. Even if you take the most heritable psychological difficulties that exist. If someone comes to you complaining about problems with anxiety, they usually will be complaining about something out in the world. Say you’re a person that’s vulnerable to a certain amount of anxiety. Any person can find moments, times in their lives when they’ve experienced high levels of anxiety in certain situations. But some people seem to be more vulnerable, perhaps because of genetic variants, but also because we have different histories that make us more or less vulnerable.

Q. And what do people do when that peak of anxiety hits?

A. Say I’m a person who has, for whatever reasons, vulnerability to some anxiety, and it shows up when I’m out moving around in the world, and I become fearful that people will see that, that I’ll be humiliated or seen as weak or be taken advantage of. One of the easiest ways to manage that anxiety is: don’t be around people. But notice what just happened there – my life got a little bit smaller. One of the things that happen with anxiety is that people start to notice: well, where does it come up? How can I wall off that aspect of my life? Except that, if you don’t go to a party because you’re socially anxious, you don’t want to think about why you’re not going to the party, because then you get anxious about the possibility of getting anxious.

Q. And what you propose is the opposite, embracing those anxieties and accepting them.

A. And not just for its own sake. Values and vulnerabilities are poured from the same vessel. What you love the most, what you long for the most is also the place that you’re the most vulnerable. So I don’t know any way to turn away from vulnerabilities that doesn’t also involve turning away from values. What we do with that inner world? What we do with the situations that make us anxious or sad? Those anxieties tell us: get smaller. Retreat. But it’s possible – and I know it sounds like a crazy idea – but it is possible to take a different relationship with those experiences.

Q. Only 3% of the population is diagnosed with anxiety disorder, but you say that the numbers lie. Why?

A. One of the things that happen with diagnostics is that we chop psychological troubles into many, many categories. Then we say: some of these over here are anxious, and some of them are more depressed. So now you’ve got two categories. But then you go into the ones that are anxious and you say: well, some of these folks are anxious about public spaces, but they’re not anxious about confined spaces. Or they’re socially anxious, but they’re not anxious about heights. And pretty soon we’ve got anxiety chopped out into 100 categories, and each one of those might be a fairly small percentage. But if you aggregate them, it’s a much larger percentage.

Q. Are these numbers increasing? Are we more anxious now than a few years ago?

A. That’s a complicated question. Yes, there’s some evidence out there that suggests that the levels of anxiety and depression have gone up markedly. But I would say we need to be a little bit cautious about that because, for example, somebody my age [69 years old] is much more likely to say out loud: yes, I have felt depressed, or yes, I have felt anxious. If you ask my father about that, he’d be less likely. If you ask my grandfather about that, he would not say a word. I think that it is healthy for people to be able to talk about these things, and I’ve always been quite open about my own, really severe mental health history: suicidal depression, psychiatric hospitalization and a very, very severe drug and alcohol addiction up till the age of 30.

Q. Why is it important to say these things out loud?

A. Partly I talk about it because, when I write and teach about psychological suffering, I write from here [he indicates a point between his stomach and his heart]. A book is written from the inside out. We’ve got a hand on science, but we’ve also got a hand on real lived experience.

I grew up in the 1950s and the 1960s in this hypermasculinized world, and anyone could make me cry. It was terrible to be a boy who cried easily in this macho world. I thought that that vulnerability that I had was the enemy, and I tried hard to push it down. And what ended up happening is that that same vulnerability has allowed me to hear the suffering of others, and to not have to run away from it. That same vulnerability that I thought was the enemy has become an incredible asset to me. Not without pain, but with purpose.

Q. In that sense, it seems that we are moving forward. Younger generations are talking about mental health.

A. I have two millennial children and one Gen X child, all daughters. And they’ve grown up in a world where people speak about these things. There are a lot of things we didn’t talk about in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, and it wasn’t healthy. I mean, think about all the things that are spoken about now that were just hidden from view then. I think it’s good for them. Although sometimes I worry a little that people become too identified with their diagnosis. As if it was some kind of label. There’s more to me than my history of alcoholism. There’s more to me than my history of depression. What is that more? I’m still discovering it, happily.

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