Acknowledge your pain

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?’

‘I’m trying.’

Kira Salak. The White Mary: a novel.

Acknowledge your pain
Photo Credit: Joachim S. Müller via Compfight cc

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.

Open up to your pain

Pain is inevitable in life. That doesn’t mean we have to suffer from pain. By making room for it, in our bodies and in our lives, we can make the experience a little less bitter.

Open up to your pain
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This notion of ageing and death is insupportable for the individual human being, in the kind of civilization we live in it develops in a sovereign and unconditional manner, it gradually occupies the whole field of consciousness , it allows nothing else to subsist. In this way, and little by little, knowledge of the world’s constraints is established. Desire itself disappears; only bitterness, jealousy and fear remain. Above all there remains bitterness; an immense and inconceivable bitterness. No civilization, no epoch has been capable of developing such a quantity of bitterness in its subjects. In that sense we are living through unprecedented times. If it was necessary to sum up the contemporary mental state in a word, that’s the one I’d undoubtedly choose: bitterness.

Michel Houellebecq. Whatever.

‘In expansion mode, rather than trying to get rid of unpleasant feelings, we open up and accommodate them. We make room for them and allow them to come and go in their own good time. It doesn’t mean we like them, want them or approve of them; we just stop investing our time and effort in fighting them. And the more space we can give those difficult feelings, the smaller their impact and influence on our lives.

There’s an ancient Indian tale that illustrates this point very well. An old Hindu master was fed up with the continual complaints and grumbles of his apprentice. So one day, he asked the young man to fetch him a cup of water and a bowl of salt. When the young man returned, the master said, ‘Now tip a handful of salt into the water.’ The apprentice did so. The master then swirled the water around in the cup until all the salt had dissolved. ‘Now taste it,’ he said to the apprentice. The apprentice took a sip and screwed up his face in disgust. ‘How does it taste?’ asked the master. ‘Horrible,’ said the apprentice. The master chuckled. ‘Yes, very unpleasant,’ he said. ‘Now follow me.’

They walked down to the edge of a nearby lake, and the master said, ‘Now tip a handful of salt into the lake.’ The apprentice did so. The master said, ‘Now taste the water from the lake.’ The apprentice drank from the lake, and this time he smiled. ‘Not so hard to swallow, eh?’ said the master. ‘This salt is like the inevitable pain of life. In both cases, the amount of salt is the same; but the smaller the container, the greater the bitterness. So when life gives us pain, instead of closing in around it, like this cup, we would do better to enlarge and open, like the lake.’

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.