Avoidance is Costly

I have spent much of my adult life running away from my pain.  Maybe more accurately is that I buried my pain alive.  Although it helped in the short term, I have paid dearly for it in the long run.

“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering,” according to Carl Jung, the father of analytic psychology.

His words, which I first heard about two years ago, changed my life.   They were an epiphany that powered my journey from avoidance to acceptance of my pain—a journey that has brought me a peace that transcends my trauma.

I grew up in home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  Like many children who later suffer from addiction, I internalized that rage as shame.  And that shame fueled my drinking.

I became an expert at numbing out to anything I perceived as painful.  Recovery experts are aware of the close connection between mental illness and addiction.  They say that addiction is the compulsive avoidance of immediate pain.  Can you hear Jung’s words in those?

In his excellent book, Recovery 2.0, a combination of memoir and sobriety handbook, Tommy Rosen says “feelings left unprocessed are buried alive!  They will act as an energetic blockage to your happiness and health.”

He goes on to say, “Later, these energetic blockages will cause a variety of emotional and physical symptoms, which will get more and more serious unless you shift onto a path of healing.”

It’s little wonder that all addictions are progressive.  They only worsen over time.  Rosen makes the point that since the original trauma never gets dealt with, all subsequent pain gets piled on top.  “It gets to the point where you’re feeling emotions that no longer correspond to what is actually happening in the present moment.”

When I relive in my mind humiliating experiences that occurred before I got sober 10 years ago, I see the insanity of my reactions to friends, family, and colleagues.  Who was that guy who was a master of misinterpretation?

It was the effect of allowing hurts to pile on top of hurts until I wasn’t experiencing reality as it was but as I was.

As I said in an earlier blog, the ultimate addiction is to our thoughts.  This, I believe, is universal.  Everyone, regardless if you consider yourself an addict or not, is addicted to patterns of thinking that cause suffering.

Rosen’s definition of addiction is “any behavior that you continue to do despite the fact that it brings negative consequences into your life.”

It is only through awareness rather than avoidance that we can begin to understand our trauma.  And that doesn’t have to be major trauma.  It can be anything that we have turned away from or buried—any past pains or threats that we have avoided.

We can’t fix what we can’t see.  I hope that this blog and my others give you the courage to look unblinkingly at your own trauma and to drill down to the root of your present suffering. The tears you shed will water the seeds of your joy.

 

Living Life in Disguise

I was amazed to recently learn just how many men struggle to connect with other men.   When asked to answer the question, “What don’t you want other people to know about you?” a surprising number of the 24 men I had joined for a weekend training stated that they had difficulty creating deep and lasting friendships with other men.

I must admit that I was one of those men. And I was also one of those men who felt a tremendous sense of relief to be reminded that I was not alone in this struggle.

It’s been just over a week since I attended what’s called the New Warriors Training Adventure hosted by the ManKind Project, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower men to become more self-aware, and in the process become more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

During that weekend, one of the most transformative of my life, I realized at a deeper level that I can survive but never thrive without connection.

I remember the show Cheers with its theme song saying, “You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  I felt a temporary connection with Sam Malone and company while watching, but it also left me feeling hollow in the absence of those connections in my real life.

It wasn’t until I entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous ten years ago that I began to witness the power of connection. Yes, our troubles were all the same, and we learned from the old timers in the group that you can’t save your ass and save your face at the same time.

Facing death by alcohol has the power of waking a man up to living life by honesty.

Like with my experience with AA, the ManKind Project has helped me realize that I have a choice: I can live life fully by allowing others to really see me as I am or I can live life partially by pretending to be who I am not.

I admire the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He said as a challenge to those who live their life playing a role rather than themselves, “Are we always going to meet on the stage? Don’t we ever take off the costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that imminent death had a way of removing the mask of who we pretend to be to reveal the beauty of who we are.

Many of us don’t want to remove the costume because we have invested a lifetime in creating it. Others may believe that living the illusion is more exciting than living the reality of who we are.

I was moved recently by learning the top regrets of people who are in hospice care. In the top five was the regret of not allowing others to truly know them, to experience the truth of who they are.

I’ve learned that it’s an impossibility to live our lives with any deep connection if we hide from others who we really are. We need to “get down from the stage so that we live out, not act out our lives,” says Joyce Block in her book Family Myths.

We must dare to be vulnerable if we dare to connect. In our early days together, my girlfriend expressed her frustration with trying to read me.  She said I was often opaque to her.  She asked, “So RJ, you don’t like small talk and you don’t like being emotionally intimate.  How do people connect with you?”  Ouch.

But I ask you that same question. How are men or women going to connect to you?  Are they going to connect superficially to the actor? Or are you willing to take the risk of removing your costume and descending the stage into your genuine self?

Help another person out by sharing in the comments what you have done to shed your costume.

Recovery Step 13

rjhandley.com

As you know from My Story, I owe my life to AA.  Its fellowship was like a loving hand that lifted me out of the deep trench I had dug with my blackout drinking.  Because of AA, I now have 10 years of sobriety.

To me, the Big Book is an inspired masterpiece.  Yet, Bill W. never intended it to be the last word on spirituality and personal growth.  Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, Bill W. wrote the letter “Emotional Sobriety,” published in the AA Grapevine.  In it he says, “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.” It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our malady.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.  He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. In response, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction.  Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth.  In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages.  With their encouraging presence, I have turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that created seeming insurmountable obstacles to my own happiness and potential.  Through this blog, I will be honored to share some of the insights and lessons I have learned that will help you to experience more moments of bliss on this earth.