Image by Rima Xaros via Flickr
Image by vvvracer via Flickr
Avoiding pain is second nature. We were created with an internal warning system that helps us avoid physical or emotional pain as best we can.
Most of us have learned strategies to cope with physical pain when we experience it: kissing it to make it better, taking a pill, grabbing an ice pack, cradling the injured part of our body, or rushing to the emergency room.
When it comes to emotional pain, rejection, or embarrassment, many of us have much less effective strategies to cope with the situation. Most of us seem to either wallow in the pain – focusing our mind on it continually, or ignore it – pretending it doesn’t exist.
I see these patterns of avoidance over and over again as I work with people struggling with anxiety, worry, stress, and depression. Someone experiences a situation that provokes physical and emotional discomfort, and they do their best to avoid thinking about it or re-experiencing the pain. Some are successful with avoiding the feelings and thoughts for a time, but the feelings are still lurking underneath the surface, waiting to overtake them again. For others the thoughts and feelings continue to return and plague them no matter how hard they try to avoid them.
I occasionally teach people a different sort of response to anxiety or discomfort. I teach them to do whatever it takes to keep the discomfort at a high level. This often involves telling themselves all the horrible thoughts they have ever heard in their head. As I coach people through this counterintuitive process of “holding through” the anxiety, I hear things like, “but I thought I was suppose to tell myself positive things, not the same old negative things.” The way I explain the technique is to picture those “Chinese handcuffs” you tricked people with as kids. The harder you pulled, the more stuck you became. When you stop fighting the fear or anxiety, you experience freedom from it.
As a client and I were working through this recently something happened that clarified how “holding through” is different from avoiding or wallowing. As we talked, a phrase from Scripture popped into my head, “Resist the devil and he will flee.” I rarely quote scripture with clients but “Samantha” is deeply religious, so I shared the verse with her.
As the words came out of my mouth they made little sense and seemed to contradict what we had just been talking about. I had just been teaching “Samantha” to stop fighting the anxiety and fear, and then suddenly I’m telling her to resist. It’s seemed contradictory. As the client and I talked about the significance of the verse to her, and how she could use the phrase, I saw the technique we were working on in a whole new light.
I realized that part of the apparent contradiction stems from meditative teachings from different perspectives. Buddhist practitioners often advocate accepting and embracing whatever you are is feeling. What this verse and experience taught me is that a differences between Christian and Buddhist meditation is that you don’t have to embrace a feeling to accept it. I can accept that I am feeling anxious or scared or nervous or angry. I don’t have to embrace it. I can notice and acknowledge it without giving into it or running from it.
Often when we experience disturbing feelings, we want to get away from them. We do that by eating, drinking, gaming, vegging out to TV, physically and mentally disassociating, getting busy, or some other avoidant strategy. Resisting is different than either embracing or avoiding. It’s standing firm – not discounting or ignoring the feeling but saying, “Give me your worst! I can take it and not be moved!”
Another difference that emerged was the recognition that negative feelings are often based on a lie. Irrational fear, anxiety, and many other emotional challenges that we face develop because of a lie we believe about ourselves, another person, or the context. For example, if I am afraid of the dark, I might be holding on to a lie that I am not safe in the dark. This may have developed due to being tripping in the dark and breaking a leg when I was young. When I get scared after my kid turns out the lights in my bedroom, it taps into that frozen memory from the past. (This is getting into another area that I will get to cover in a future blog.)
So when my client became afraid that something bad was going to happen to her while she was listening to a lecture in a classroom, she really was experiencing fear. However, the fear was based on a false assessment of risk – a lie. While we can never be 100% certain that we are safe, the level of risk sitting in a college classroom is pretty minimal. Noticing and acknowledging the feeling was an appropriate response. Avoiding or ignoring it would have been counterproductive in her healing process. Standing firm and resisting the fear and the lie it was based on was appropriate.
The next time you begin to feel anxious or uncomfortable—accept the feeling, identify if there is a lie behind it. Then tell yourself the truth and resist the lie. Tell the anxiety to “bring it on, do your worst! I will not be moved because I am standing on truth and will not be blown over by a lie!”