May 26, 2019
We human beings are hard-wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
With regard to emotional pain, that begs the question is there any possibility of changing our negative relationship with it? Is there a way to avoid it less so that we can benefit more from the lessons it offers? I think there is.
Most of us have gotten pretty good at letting physical pain be a teacher. We get burned once and learn not to put our hand on a hot stove. If we get a bellyache that won’t go away, we see an expert who can help us figure out the problem.
Yet emotional pain is a whole different story!
We avoid emotional pain like the plague. Sadly, most of us haven’t been taught that it may be the best friend we’ll ever have.
Avoiding or resisting emotional pain means we will be unable to take advantage of the wisdom it offers. Tough times show us what we’re capable of and who we are. The tough times and subsequent painful feelings are opportunities that will teach us something we need to learn or re-learn. Go straight to your discomfort — that’s where the growth is.
Remember, happiness in and of itself does not make for a good life. It is a fleeting feeling and an instinctual response that comes and goes depending on whether or not we’re getting our way.
As lovely as the feeling of happiness is, it does not add the richness or depth that challenge and discomfort can offer. It doesn’t help us to be more empathetic, more skilled at making a living, a more effective parent, or help us to develop patience and the ability to delay gratification.
We learn those things through trial and error during the hard times, noticing when we’re uncomfortable, feeling emotional pain, and then doing something about it. That is how we build strength of character.
There is a way out of our never-ending and fruitless flight from emotional discomfort.
Just like physical pain, emotional pain is telling us something needs our attention. We can use emotional pain in the same way we use physical pain.
Victor Frankl, renowned author, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, represents the height of managing emotional pain in a way that was additive rather than diminishing. In spite of enduring unimaginable horrors during his years in Auschwitz, he brought meaning to his experience, helped his fellow prisoners, and when released, founded a school of therapy, Logotherapy, that was a precursor to the idea that there can be post-traumatic growth from adversity. Frankl came to believe that rather than there being one over-arching meaning to our lives, we must find meaning in each set of circumstances that life hands us.
Rest assured, it is the idea of emotional pain that is so profoundly scary. The actual feelings that we’re trying to avoid aren’t anywhere near as awful as we imagine.
How many times have you put something off for months or even years, all the while berating yourself for being lazy, only to hunker down and get it done, thinking, “Wow, why didn’t I do this sooner?”
You didn’t do it sooner because of that hard-wired thing about avoiding what we imagine will be painful. Our imagination is our greatest strength and, in some cases, our greatest weakness.
We can stop running away from our best teacher because it can’t actually hurt us. It’s telling us to be gentle or patient with ourselves, or to get out of a sticky relationship or grieve a loss. Maybe we need to apologize or learn a new skill. Sometimes we simply have to wake up to the fact that our attitude needs an overhaul.
Pick one thing that you have been avoiding feeling because it scares you. Whatever it is, stare it in the face, drop all the stories you have about it, and experience what it feels like in your body when you don’t avoid it by eating, or drinking, or emailing/texting/Internet surfing/social media’ing it away. Inevitably, what you’ll discover is that it is a sensation in your body that will leave in a few seconds if you don’t avoid it.
It will become clear that the emotional pain you have avoided feeling is a sensation, not a predator. Whether you are feeling guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety, longing, anger, or embarrassment, feeling those feelings cannot do anywhere near the damage that avoidance can do.
Feelings, once confronted and experienced as sensations in the body, have their organic life and leave within a very short period of time. Research has shown that when you bring your attention to sensations in your body, relax your body, and gently breathe into the sensations without resistance, feelings can complete their organic lives in as short as ninety seconds. They may come back relatively quickly, so you rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, until the new habit of using discomfort as information begins to take root.
Once you have faced and accepted the reality of your situation, you will be able to shift from victim (something has been done to me) to victor (I can do something about this).
Literally the only variable we can control is our attitude. Life will continue to hand us hard stuff.
We can respond by spending countless hours or years railing against the unfairness of our cheating spouse, our irrational boss, or our imperfect parents. Or we can look the situation squarely in the face, be aware of the feelings in our body in reaction to what happened, make our peace with the reality that it did occur, and then, when we begin to do something about it, move from victim to victor.
Now get out there and let life hand you a feeling to feel!