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.

 

The connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

Five Ways to Help a Friend Through Tough Times

“As much as I would like to help my friend through this crisis, I’ll probably just make it worse.” This is what I would tell myself years ago. I felt very uncomfortable about reaching out to my friends who were experiencing a rough patch in life.  It was not because I didn’t care.  It was more about a lack of confidence in my ability to be truly helpful.

Then I went through a series of crises of my own that made me aware of what I needed from friends and family to weather those storms.   I learned that just the presence of a friend provided a great deal of relief.  So I returned the favor and showed up for my friends and family who were struggling.

Through applying the skills of those who helped me, through the wisdom of relationship experts, and through practice, I have come up with five very effective ways to help a friend or family member through tough times.

  • Become aware of the signs of crisis. An article in the American Psychological Association says that one of the most common signs of an emotional crisis is a friend of family member’s abrupt change in behavior.  This includes: neglect of personal hygiene, pronounced changes in mood, weight gain or loss, isolation, and an upsurge in negativity.
  • Reach out. Just a phone call or a visit—anything that makes you present for another—can work wonders. Simply saying, “You don’t seem to be yourself lately, do you want to talk?” is a great way to get the other person to open up.
  • Listen rather than fix. This is especially difficult for males since we have been socialized to fix things. The idea here is to let the person empty his or her heart.  Even if it is obvious to us that the person’s suffering is due to misconceptions or misperceptions, let the person vent.  Listen and avoid judging or interrupting. Sometime later, if the person is interested, you can help with the distorted thinking.
  • Offer to help with routine tasks. Although this may not seem to be especially helpful in relieving another’s distress, it is often these very tangible gestures that send the message that you really care.  Things like preparing a meal, running errands for the person, or mowing the lawn all reduce another’s suffering.
  • Be patient. You may need to hear the person’s story again and again.  It takes time to clear the emotional pipes. If the clouds have not passed in a few weeks, sit down with that person and kindly suggest professional help.  Providing your friend of family member with the phone number of an established professional can eliminate one obstacle to treatment.

If you suspect that a loved one is suffering or in crisis, don’t hesitate to reach out.  By integrating these simple skills, you can be a healing presence for that person.  It’s in simple gestures that your deep caring is expressed.  As spiritual teacher Ram Dass says, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

What do you do to help a friend in crisis?  Please share what you have found to be really effective so we can all become better able to help those in our lives who are suffering.

10 Reasons to Get Off Your Relationship Badonkadonk

When I was drinking, I would often discount the importance of relationships.  In recovery, I now know why.  I wasn’t good at them.

Relationships are one of the most crucial parts of our lives. We are built for relationship, and we need them to thrive.

Everything is relational.  Nothing exists in isolation.   Look at nature.   The tree that I see from my window has a relationship to the air, to the sun, to the soil, and to itself.  How much more is true for us as complex human beings?

In previous posts, I have shared my own experiences and the wisdom of relationship experts.  Relationships are so critically important that I ask you to put down all the baggage you’re carrying from past relationships so that you can open the door to new possibilities.

Past hurts and fear of rejection can immobilize us.  We often, then, resort to our default setting of isolation, preferring loneliness to the fear of engaging.

Here is a list of the benefits of friendships and partnership.  I provide these in hopes that you will summon the courage to put your fear in the backseat and get out there and live the life that is waiting for you:

  • Relationships satisfy our need for connection.
  • Relationships are the greatest catalyst for growth.
  • Relationships enable us to better give and receive love.
  • Relationships bring fresh perspectives to our lives.
  • Relationships open us to new experiences.
  • Relationships help us see our blind spots.
  • Relationships provide support.
  • Relationships make us better at relationships.
  • Relationships deepen our understanding of ourselves.
  • Relationships are fun,  dammit!                                                                                                                                   Next time, I’ll share about ways to meet other people so that you start enjoying the benefits listed above.