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.

 

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.