Pain x resistance = suffering - how therapy can help
Pain is unavoidable.
No matter how hard we try we really cannot escape death, illness and loss. Or even little things, rejection, things not going the way we want them to go, things going the way we don’t want them to go. Most things are outside our control. Even though modern media does a pretty amazing job convincing us of the contrary. Perhaps if we only drank more spinach smoothies, did more yoga, had better clothes and a more fulfilling job, we would be able to be happy all the time.
We have come to believe that there is something wrong with pain. That pain shouldn't be there and that perfection is possible, if only we tried harder. So we put a lot of effort into avoiding pain and distracting ourselves from it. There are hundreds of ways of distracting yourself from fear, pain and emptiness. Ranging from injecting heroin to doing yoga - and everything in between. Some of these of course are more problematic than others, but my point is that even ‘healthy behaviours’ can be used in this way.
These distractions slowly solidify into habit patterns. Habits may become barriers between us and the world, us and our experience. The more time we spend buying jeans on e-bay to avoid the feeling of loneliness and fear, the bigger the fear of that initial fear becomes and the bigger the need to distract and avoid it. In this manner we add more and more layers onto the original emotion that we wanted to get rid of.
On a side note, I’d like to mention that of course there are often very good and adaptive reasons for using distraction and numbing as coping mechanisms. In cases of severe trauma or attachment wounding, for example, our system becomes so overwhelmed that we cannot physically allow the pain to be experienced and our only chance of psychological survival is to shut down and dissociate, especially if the trauma happens at a young age. In this article my focus is more on the avoidance of everyday pain.
Another way that we tend to avoid or add to our initial pain is by shooting ourselves with “second darts”. The Buddha spoke of the first dart of pain: our direct experience of physical or emotional pain (the one that is inevitable), but then we throw the second dart ourselves. By adding our thoughts and judgments and stories and rejections. The second dart is the dart that turns pain into suffering. Your boss tells you that you need to work more efficiently (first dart) and you tell yourself that you are a loser and will never amount to anything (second dart). And then you might get away from both those darts by spending your next two hours on Facebook (and not working, and beating yourself up over not working and being such a loser, and so on and so forth).
Or perhaps we feel some sadness or a little twinge of rejection when our partner doesn't remember to kiss us in the morning, but there is a voice in us telling us ‘don’t be so stupid, feeling rejected over something so tiny’. So then we add a layer of self-judgment and anger to the sadness. And then we may even add a layer on top of that that chides and shames us for the anger and self-judgment. And so on, ad infinitum (and ad nauseam).
In this way we end up getting caught up more and more thickly in the inner dialogue of thoughts and opinions. The strategies that meant to help us distract and avoid the initial pain and fear become another source of anguish for many people, as we are likely to feel quite awful about our tendency to reach for jeans/chocolate/alcohol/Facebook or whatever else. And in this continuous inner whirlwind of self-talk and judgment, we lose touch with the actual visceral experience of the initial emotion.
You have probably heard of the saying (or cliche) “what you resist, persists”. It’s true, as long as we don’t allow the original emotion to be felt and experienced it will linger and “lurk somewhere down there”- which of course adds then to our fear, as the emotion becomes an unknown entity and people often become afraid of being overwhelmed by their ‘hidden’ emotions.
In keeping ourselves from the raw pain that is inherent in existence, we create a numbness, a constant feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness. This is when depression and anxiety often arise; we are disconnected from the world and our direct bodily experience. Everything seems hollow and we are trapped in our thoughts. In numbing our experience of pain it is unfortunately inevitable that we also numb our experience of joy. People become mired in a swamp of self-hatred and everything feels just too chaotic and too much.
So, how can therapy help to unravel this knot?
How can a therapeutic relationship help to reconnect, to life and to yourself?
In many cases, people keep presenting the world with an image of happiness and success. Many people who come for counselling are extremely relieved to be able to ‘drop the mask’ just for an hour, but when they leave they flick the switch back to happy, cheerful and in control. The gap between the deep unexpressed, half-felt feelings and the presentational self keeps widening which adds to the experience of suffering. However, in the relationship with a therapist who accepts you fully and welcomes the whole of you, you can begin to allow more of yourself to yourself. If this other person can accept me completely, then maybe I am not so horrid and flawed after all. The therapist holds the faith, has complete confidence in the client and in their potential. While the client often fears or feels that they are broken “beyond repair”- the therapist knows that the ‘true nature of a person’ is something that cannot be destroyed.
Because of the safety and containment and acceptance that the therapy space provides, people can begin to feel their actual feelings. They can let in the pain in small doses. The pain they spend the rest of the week running away from. In a safe manner, away from the rest of their life, just one little hour a week. People begin to discover that they can actually bear the pain, feel it and not be destroyed by it. And they see that the therapist can bear the pain too, the therapist can hold their pain and their wounded, broken, shameful sides. So they begin to grow a tolerance for pain and distress and an acceptance of it. They begin to see that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with pain, that it adds to a rich and meaningful life.
And we can also begin to notice where the first dart ends and the second dart begins. So you can start to let in the pain of the first dart but not bother as much with throwing the second (and third, fourth and fifth) darts. We can drop some of the incessant stories about ourselves and who we are and who we ought to be. When we learn to relax in the midst of chaos (at least a little bit), accept that things will never be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ fully, and loosen that straight jacket of our identity a little, we can start to live more in the fluid ever changing present, where life actually happens, rather than in our stories about it, filtered and conditioned by our past.