When something deeply troubles you, how do you manage? Are your thoughts about yourself and your life at these times helpful or do they cause greater harm? Does the experience of pain open the floodgates for an onslaught of negative thoughts to fire away at you, cataloguing all the ways you aren’t good enough, or is it compassionate in its resolve?
If your thoughts are of the negative kind, then it is possible your brain has transformed your experience of pain into one of suffering and misery. How long this suffering persists for is defined and controlled by your own outlook rather than the severity of the event. This is because pain is a natural response to life being difficult or a problem being present, and is therefore inevitable for us all at varying degrees. Suffering, however, can continue long after the initial pain has eased. Some people live their whole lives in a state of ongoing suffering, either for past regrets and hurts they cannot accept, for all the persistent fears they have for their future or for the minor day-to-day stressors of life.
Learning to stop running from pain requires a basic acceptance of it as part of the awareness of a mortal being. This type of life skill is called Radical Acceptance, and it is one of the core components of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, a specific type of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy developed by psychologist, Marsha M. Linehan. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) gets its name from the notion that the mind interprets life by appreciating its polar opposites. The therapy weaves in the dialectic between acceptance and change. So while we work towards changing our lives in a positive direction, we also work on accepting those unfavourable or painful permanent fixtures in our life or history. Embracing this dialectic is critical to our happiness in life, particularly when life has involved persistent and ongoing hardships or trauma.
Consider these 4 reasons why we must stay in the drivers seat rather than become a passenger driven by emotions running out of control.
1. What you run from, you strengthen.
You may eat away your sorrows or drink to deal with a breakup. You may work late to avoid fights at home or hang onto others to avoid your own company. Whatever distraction tactic you use, it’s all escapism with a neat little bow. The fear gives you an intense need to save yourself, to protect yourself from those feelings in any possible way. Enormous pain requires massive defense.
Numbing or running from pain may provide relief in the moment, however it strengthens your fear. And every time you run away, you reinforce the strategy to manage painful emotions. So the very next time you feel this emotion, you go to the lolly jar or packet of chips. Or you arrange a beer at the pub. Or you run to a friend to save you. And you keep going and going with these habits until it becomes an addiction. When you look at this pattern of addiction (to food, alcohol or work), you may start to realise that it’s not simply the taste of the food that drives you to this habit, but the need to escape feeling horrible, distressed or out of control.
The difficult thing about this pattern is that you cannot face an addiction without facing the truth. The food is not the problem. Running away from your pain is the problem. And there is only one answer: abstinence. It’s the only answer for a true alcoholic and the only answer for anyone addicted to escaping pain. You must literally go cold turkey on running away from pain. You need to learn to cope another way.
The study of pain is an interesting one. According to McKay & Fanning in their book Self Esteem, pain comes in waves. Perhaps the best illustration of this is in the pain of grief. With grief, a sense of loss whelms up, a feeling so intense that one cannot imagine an end to it. But then, after a time, a numbness comes, a period of calm and relief. Soon numbness is replaced by another wave of loss. And so it continues: waves of loss, calmness, loss, calmness.
This is the natural cycle of pain. As soon as you reach an overload, your emotions shut off. You literally stop feeling for a little while. These waves continue, with smaller amplitudes and longer rest periods, until the hurt finally eases. Both your body and mind have natural mechanisms that dampen pain for periods so you get a chance to catch your breath. Your emotional pain has exactly the same oscillations. When you face the pain, you’ll notice that soon enough the wave passes. Soon, the worst of it will be over.
2. Rather than self-harm, try self-love.
Self-loathing, self-harm and self-sabotage are all destructive means to cope with emotional pain. They compound your pain by adding another layer of negativity such as guilt or a sense of failure. These are all ways to attack yourself in a desperate attempt to escape pain. But instead of automatically going into attack mode when triggered, there is another option you could try; self love.
Self-love does not have to mean telling yourself how awesome you are each time you catch your reflection (that is, it’s not about being narcissistic or completely self-indulgent). It is about simply finding your middle ground between self-attack and self-obsession. It does not matter who you are or what you believe, we could all learn a thing or two about self-compassion. As the saying goes, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation” -Henry Ward Beecher
3. Whether you caused the pain or someone else did, it’s your job to fix it.
Come with me for a minute. Imagine you are wrongly accused for committing a crime and sent to jail. All attempts to legally challenge this fails. Every day you wake up and face the reality of your situation, being that the law has decided you are guilty and deserve the punishment the crime yields. Every day you wake up in prison, needing to decide how you will get through another day, another year, another decade with this life. Is it right that you are in jail? No. Is it fair? No. Is it your reality? Yes. So what do you do with this life? Do you live each day of your sentence writhe with anger, being highly distressed and agitated with your predicament, or do you work hard on focusing your mental energy on accepting your reality? Who is happier? Who is working on utilising his emotional resources for the things within his control rather than all the things outside of his control?
Essentially, we could all learn a thing or two from the person who works on accepting his reality. This is not about approval. Approval is a very different concept. It is about accepting what cannot be changed so you can focus your skill on what can change to bring about a sense of inner peace and contentment. Life does not exist in terms of absolutes like right and wrong. Reality is reality, and it is all that exists. Avoid adding on all the suffering of the past and future as well. You only have one life to call your own. It is your job to make it a good one. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”– Jon Kabat- Zinn.
4. Even a moment of suffering can be deeply meaningful and a vehicle for greater self-awareness.
Emotional pain cannot kill you. It cannot destroy you, send you crazy or completely take over your life. However, learning how to manage emotional pain takes skill, and if you are someone who feels emotion intensely then you will need to master these skills in order to live a purposeful life. When you stop avoiding what makes you scared, you have a chance of overcoming your fear. This brings with it a chance to be free. What greater feeling exists than the freedom of truly accepting and embracing who you are?
Try these strategies to build your skills of Radical Acceptance in your life:
A. Thought Challenge. Rather than getting caught up in negative thoughts such as ‘It will last forever’ and ‘I can’t stand it’, use coping thoughts such as:
– It will pass
– The feeling comes from past hurts, it has nothing to do with my true worth
– I can FEEL bad and still BE good
B. Self Love. It can be as simple as telling yourself you are good enough when someone tries to put you down or buying yourself flowers or a small treat when you’re having a bad day. This strategy involves treating yourself to the same thoughtful acts you would give to a friend when they are down (if we do it for people we love, why can’t we offer ourselves that same level of comfort and consideration?)
C. Grounding Techniques. Grounding techniques teach you to anchor yourself as you ride the wave of emotional pain (sometimes we need to get out of our heads and into our body and the world). This could be via meditation, prayer, yoga, exercising, squeezing clay or mud or slowly tasting food. These strategies don’t solve the problem, but they could stop you from attacking yourself or others in a desperate attempt to escape pain.
D. Accessing Your Higher Self. This strategy helps to remind us that everyone has value and purpose that can be found in large and small things. It involves helping someone else, thanking someone for how they’ve helped you, volunteering or contributing in some small way to a greater cause. It could be making an effort to smile at strangers and seeing how many smiles you get back.
Ultimately, building the circuitry in your brain around coping with pain involves learning how you can get your needs met in other ways. The message is simple: stop running, because you’ll be running forever. Life is hard enough as it is, it does not need to be made harder by an inability to accept your reality, whatever that happens to be right now. By searching for the message in life’s lessons, you are well on your way to healing and growth.
DBT Skills Workbook, by Marsha Linehan
Self Esteem, book by Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning
Coping Skills worksheet, by Indigo Daya. www.indigodaya.com.
The Complete Buddhism for Mothers, book by Sarah Napthali.
By: Alison Lenehan, psychologist