Avoiding unpleasant situations works in the physical word, but avoiding unpleasant thoughts or feelings can make your pain worse.
He went into his bedroom and brought back an object in a paper bag.
‘Do you know what this is?’ He pulled out a small bottle of Jack Daniels. ‘I’ve kept this bottle for ten years, ever since I got sober, to remind me of what I overcame, to remind me that I’m stronger than any addiction. But do you know how long I looked at this bottle last night? Do you know how long I considered taking a drink?’
She bit her lip, saying nothing.
‘All night,’ Seb said, glaring at her. ‘I looked at this goddamn bottle all night long.’ He slammed it onto the table. ‘But I didn’t drink. You know why? Because I’m stronger than it. And you’re stronger than whatever it is that’s been trying to sabotage what we have together.’
‘I told you I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘What else can I say?’
‘Are you even hearing me? You don’t solve problems by avoiding them – by drinking or running off with some guy. You need to face what’s hurting you, and acknowledge it, or you’ll never have the life you want. Not with me or with anyone else, Marika. The only way out of your pain is through it. And I wish it were easier, but it’s not. As long as you resist what hurts, you’re going to resist life—can you get that?’
Kira Salak. The White Mary: a novel.
Imagine you wake up one morning and just outside your front door you find an adorable tiger kitten mewing. Of course you bring the cuddly little guy inside to keep as a pet. After playing with him for a while, you notice he is still mewing, nonstop, and you realize he must be hungry. You feed him a bit of bloody, red ground beef knowing that’s what tigers like to eat. You do this every day, and every day your pet tiger grows a little bigger. Over the course of two years, your tiger’s daily meals change from hamburger scraps, to prime rib, to entire sides of beef. Soon your little pet no longer mews when hungry. Instead, he growls ferociously at you whenever he thinks it’s mealtime. Your cute little pet has turned into an uncontrollable, savage beast that will tear you apart if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Your struggle with your pain can be compared to this imaginary pet tiger. Every time you empower your pain by feeding it the red meat of experiential avoidance, you help your pain-tiger grow a little bit larger and a little bit stronger. Feeding it in this manner seems like the prudent thing to do. The pain-tiger growls ferociously telling you to feed it whatever it wants or it will eat you. Yet, every time you feed it, you help the pain to become stronger, more intimidating, and more controlling of your life.
Consider the possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, that it’s not just that these avoidance strategies haven’t worked—it’s that they can’t work. Avoidance only strengthens the importance and the role of whatever you are avoiding—in other words, when you avoid dealing with your problem, it only grows.
Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.