After many hours of sitting with clients in initial sessions, I have realized there is one consistently common theme that draws people to therapy. It’s not relationships, or stress, or depression. It’s not a specific diagnosis. And it’s not your mother.
The one thing that seems to bring people to counseling is the unique way they have learned to avoid pain.
We all do it, right? We feel angry at the route our life has taken: so we drink. We feel grief in reflecting on the loss of a parent: so we work longer hours at the office to avoid thinking about it. We fear rejection from others: so we do everything we can to please them so they won’t leave. We’re afraid of being “not enough,” so we try to perfect everything in our lives.
Feelings are painful, and we have so many difficult emotions. From the time we are young, we learn the specific type of avoidance that seems to work for us. This could be through experience, or through watching how our parents cope with pain. But typically, we get into a pattern: we find something that works to keep pain at bay and we do it and do it and do it.
Until, one day, it seems to cause more problems than what we’ve been running from.
The regular drink to cope turns into depending on alcohol. The long hours at work morphs into workaholism, excessive stress, and chronic fatigue. The people-pleasing leads to an exhausting hamster wheel of shallow relationships. The perfectionism never does lead to feeling “enough,” and our deficiencies feel even more inescapable.
Try to recall the last time you felt real emotional discomfort. It could have been the last time you cried or a recent argument with your partner. What was the situation? What would you name what you felt? What was your response to that feeling? Did that response fit into a rhythm of how you typically cope with feelings?
I wonder what it would’ve been like for you to sit with that feeling you were having. It would’ve been terrible, probably. It definitely would not have felt like contentment and peace. But I wonder if you’re far enough along now to stand how terrible it would’ve been. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been an adult for some time now. You probably have more resources, more relationships, more capacity than you did when you first started avoiding your feelings. Maybe avoidance has been giving you less credit than you deserve.
The truth is that feeling all that hard stuff is the only way. All of our methods of running from our emotions only compound the problem. We must acknowledge the emotion, engage with compassion (not pity) for ourselves for how painful it all is, and make a choice about how we would like to attend to the feeling. Hint: being with someone we feel safe with, while we feel the pain, usually works pretty well. What also works well: walking the dog, a glass of water, sitting in nature, screaming into a pillow, journaling, some yoga, a deep sigh, a nap, good food. None of these to excess. Have a good list of what works for you ready to access when you truly need it.
The incomparable Anne Lamott speaks to us beautifully in this:
“But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.”
-Anne Lammot, “Bird by Bird”
-Meaghan Warnock, MA, LPC-MHSP