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 Ultimate Addiction

The ultimate addiction may be to our thoughts.

Everybody is aware of that voice in the head. You know, the one that urges you to action, the one that you argue with, the one that criticizes you, the one that narrates the movies you make in your head.

A friend of mine joked that the only difference between the people he sees on the streets arguing with themselves and himself was that he didn’t make public the dialogs he creates in his head. I laughed a little uneasily about this, and I was reminded of a passage from Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth in which he makes the same observation as my friend.

One of the things that non-addicts get grumpy about is hearing addicts in recovery say time and again that everyone would benefit from reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. As a recovering alcoholic, I was guilty of this in my early recovery.

Yet, as I read more and more spiritual psychology, the more I learn about the voice. Tolle makes a cogent point that we are all addicts…addicts to our own thinking.   Part of it, particularly for those who love drama (and we all do to a degree), is that creating these mental movies is like the rush of crack.  There is a release of hormones and an adrenaline rush that is…well…addictive.

The majority of us have come to believe that the voice is ourselves speaking to ourselves. What psychologists say is that the voice is really a collection of voices from parents, caretakers, and people who were influential in our lives back as early as childhood.  We have internalized these voices into a composite voice that is constantly chattering away in our heads.

Because it is so familiar, we consider it to be one that “has our back,” that is looking out for our best interest, that is like a best friend. We sometimes forget that this voice is the one that drags us over the coals for the blunders we have made.

If we have the courage to really step back and listen to this voice as if it is someone we are sitting down with having coffee, we would begin to notice that frequently it is a very critical voice. It cruelly takes us to task about who we are and what we do.

Can we really call this voice a friend? Friends love us, support us, and say encouraging words. They remind us of our strengths.  Does the voice really “have our back”?  In my experience, no.  Why do I listen then?  Because I always have.

That is the addiction.

One of the most life-changing realizations I have made during my years reading books on recovery, spirituality, and spiritual psychology—and the one that was so tough for me to grasp—was simply this: we are not our thoughts, we are not our behaviors, and we are not the roles we play. These are things we do. They are not who we are.

But there is a part of us that is at the core of our being. It is that part of us that has remained the same from the time were in diapers, from the time we were children, from the time we were in middle school and high school, and throughout the entire span of our adult lives.   In spiritual terms, this is the soul.

The soul has a voice. It is often called the “small voice” within us.  The reason it is small is because we have allowed the cacophony of voices of our social conditioning to dominate it.

The soul-voice is the one that is who we really are. It is our essence.  And it truly is our most loving friend.

In order to hear it, we must no longer identify ourselves with the critical voice. We must step back from it, again recognizing it as the composite voice of our parents and caretakers.  Experts call this taking the “witness-observer” position.

Being able to assume this position will dramatically change the way that you respond to life and all the people who make up your life.

With practice it becomes easier to dispel the noise of the critical voice and to hear the small voice within. Just take a few moments every day to sit in stillness.  Visualize stepping back away from the critical voice you are hearing like backing away from another person.  Remain still and listen.  See if you can’t begin to hear the loving and compassionate of your small inner voice.

It is there, and it is the voice of self-compassion, love, and acceptance.

It is the voice of your true Self.

I would love to hear your personal experiences doing this. Your comments are welcome!

Seven Benefits of Loneliness

Loneliness needs to be celebrated.   We are all familiar with the pang of loneliness, but few of us are aware of its perks.  Despite the stigma associated with loneliness, it may be one of the greatest contributors to creativity, productivity, spirituality, empathy, and, paradoxically, to relationship building.

Some of history’s most admired figures— Leonardo di Vinci, Shakespeare, Jesus—would be seen as lonely in today’s terms. “Language…has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone,” according to Theologian Paul Tillich, who sees the duality of being alone.

Our Growing Sense of Loneliness

As a nation, we appear to be getting lonelier. Ironically, as we have become more and more connected through social media, the lonelier we have become.  The latest Census figures show that 31 million Americans are living alone, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the US population and one quarter of all US households.

And recent studies reveal that chronic loneliness has increased dramatically over the last decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of Americans who regularly felt lonely was between 11- 20 percent. By 2010, it had increased to 40 – 45 percent, according to a nationally representative study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

A 2016 Harris Poll found that 72 percent of Americans admit to feeling lonely at least once a week.

Whether it is chronic or occasional, most people feel the pang of loneliness. Social scientists believe that part of people’s painful reactions to loneliness is due to the social stigma that modern psychology has attached to it. Those who suffer from loneliness often see themselves as social defectives.

Solitude is loneliness’ happier cousin

Although both describe a state of being alone, the difference between loneliness and solitude is choice. When people make the conscious choice to be alone, they experience solitude. When being alone is not a choice, people experience loneliness.   Loneliness implies an undesirable state whereas solitude suggests a desirable one.

As you know from my previous blogs, I see relationships with others as being one of the most crucial facets of life. As human beings, we are built for relationships. They have the power to make us more emotionally mature, revealing to us our blind spots and the areas in our life where we have problems giving or receiving love.

Yet, psychologists are also realizing the need for time alone to nourish a balanced life. Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat are wonderful for social snacking, but we need the nourishment of solitude in order to sustain a healthy lifestyle, which includes the demands of work, family, and friendships.

Here’s why:

The Benefits of Solitude

  1. Solitude can infuse relationships with freshness.   Time alone from loved ones spent reading, playing music, completing projects, or exploring new ideas can breathe fresh life into a tired relationship.

 

  1. Solitude allows us to recharge our batteries. This is truer for introverts than extroverts, but everyone needs time alone with their thoughts and feelings.

 

  1. Solitude provides us with the focus to problem solve. The corporate model of teaming can increase productivity, but it comes at a cost for those who may feel marginalized. This outside or minority voice is often silenced when it would appear to go against the prevailing grain of group thinking.

 

  1. Solitude fosters productivity. There are vocations that require time alone. Artists, writers, musicians, and others require solitude in order to create.

 

  1. Solitude is especially important for teens. They need time alone from self-consciousness and peer pressure to develop their own sense of personal identity.

 

  1. Solitude deepens our desire for connectedness with others. Although this seems paradoxical, we need time alone in order to greater cherish the time we have with loved ones.

 

  1. Solitude gives us the inner space to improve our conscious contact with God.   Prayer and meditation require freedom from distractions.

 

If we can recognize that being alone is a part of a balanced life, maybe we could shift our perspective on loneliness. When we become aware that being alone is not always the personal crisis that we were taught to believe, then we can embrace our loneliness, dispel some of the negative emotions associated with it, and see it for the benefits it can bring to us. In fact, if we apply its benefits, loneliness may even become a friend. Then loneliness becomes solitude.