4 Steps to Confronting Buried Pain
In a way, the above scenario is a description of you if you did drugs or drank martinis into oblivion. At the time, it'd feel like you're seeking bliss and getting to avoid pain. But in the long-term, you'd be in flight-from-reality mode—not experiencing real life, with its inevitable ebbs and flows, all of which give you needed insights that enable you to reach your highest potential.
Aristotle had a wonderful quote related to this topic: "We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best."
For this reason, Aristotle said the reason so many people are unhappy is that they keep foolishly confusing pleasure for happiness. Pleasure is simply about immediate, fleeting gratification of the body and the ego. Happiness is about seeking long-term growth for yourself as a thriving individual and nourishing your soul for the long haul.
For example, you can busy yourself with an addiction to food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, gambling, sleeping pills, etc. Or you can simply hide your feelings in numbness, isolation or denial. Whatever your flight-mode plan, it's essential that at some point you return to reality so you can feel your truthful pain, which will lead you to that blessed gain of growth.
In other words: It's only after you allow yourself to become honestly aware of what you're feeling that it means you're truly dealing—and thereby truly healing. Indeed, pain is your evolutionary friend—serving as a life wake-up call and motivating you to evolve into your highest potential self.
Countless psychologists around the world have affirmed this notion. Psychology researcher Dr. Sharon Wolf puts forth that there is a core pain that we all must be ready to feel during really bad times so as to fully recover from them. As Sharon says: "If you want to heal rightly from a crisis, be ready to tolerate more pain than you thought you could ever feel." Thankfully, Sharon simultaneously promises that if you learn to sit with, feel and tolerate this core pain, it will get smaller and smaller until it eventually disappears.
Admittedly, it's human nature to avoid this "core pain" at the onset of a personal tragedy. Indeed, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously outlined the five stages of grief as follows:
Stage 1: Denial and Isolation
"This is not happening to me."
Stage 2: Anger
"How dare this happen to me."
Stage 3: Bargaining
"Just let me get X and I won't care about Y," or "If this doesn't happen, I promise to..."
Stage 4: Depression
"I can't bear to face going through this."
Stage 5: Acceptance
"I'm ready. I don't want to struggle anymore."
The fabulous author Joan Didion, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, confesses to all the many and varied ways she chose to avoid feeling the initial "core pain" of her husband's sudden death. Joan shares that at first she took on a business-like focus, directing her mind to only think about who she needed to call, what she needed to do, what the hospital needed from her (getting copies of medical summaries, patiently standing in line to ﬁll out forms, etc.). What appeared to those around her to be a preternatural calm ("She's a pretty cool customer," Joan overheard a hospital social worker say) was in fact a state of total numbness and denial. Unable to face the reality of her husband's death, Joan found herself engaging in what she calls magical thinking, a conjuring of a world in which her husband might reappear. Joan even admits that in her determined attempt to avoid pain, she never read her husband's obituary—telling herself that reading it would be a form of betrayal. Joan also describes how at first she kept her husband's shoes, telling herself he would need them when he came back.
Eventually, Joan discovered what we all need to discover: Sooner or later, we must face the harsh light of truth.
If you're presently avoiding pain and grief at all costs, I recommend you consider these four steps to help you rise back up—even higher than where you were in the first place.
4 Bounce-Back Tips
1. Whenever you find yourself seeking an addiction in an attempt to run from pain, keep in mind these wonderful words from author Satish Kumar: "Sister, pain is part of life. By accepting it, its intensity is reduced. Do not resist it. Resistance to pain brings tension and anxiety, anxiety leads to fear. Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. This pain will pass."
Translation: It’s always your choice. You can either (a) Sit with the pain now, or (b) Avoid the pain now and potentially feel even greater pain later, thereby delaying the healing and its incumbent path to self-growth.
2. Once you allow the pain to come, become aware of where in your body this pain is landing: throat, heart, stomach, back, head. Feel it in this body part, then breathe it out of this body part. If possible, give yourself specific times to grieve and breathe.
3. Keep a journal. Track your healing process through the five stages (you may skip some stages and also regress or cycle back), but a journal will show you that progress is being made. And, remember, after you pass through stage 4, that final stage of acceptance is right around the corner.
4. Recognize that you are an unfinished self in progress. Like so many of life's challenges, experiencing and overcoming pain can reveal emotional depths and perspectives you didn't know you were capable of. Refocus on the excitement of all the new changes in your life and the journey ahead. Motivate yourself to stretch your mind; seek to find the healthiest interpretations and most positive lessons in every challenge.
Karen Salmansohn is a best-selling author known for creating self-help for people who wouldn't be caught dead reading self-help.