Growing up a child of the 80’s I often heard adults caution me on how to approach life. They would warn me that there was a hard way, and an easy way. The hard way, of course, meant heading in a direction that would mean much work and toil with little to no reward for my efforts; conversely, the easy way meant that things worked out, rewards were sure, and happiness was gained. Their attempt to help was sincere, I’m certain they totally believed what they said. I also believe they may have been appealing to my attraction toward ease—emphasizing that the way I was going was bound toward hardship and that I didn’t have to learn “the hard way” in life. It wasn’t until much older that I realized such instruction was patently false.
As a people we are continually believing, and searching for, an easier way. A way that doesn’t involve uncertainty, confusion, intermittent (and unclear) rewards, strain, and heartache. The drift toward ease can apply to us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—as such, all sorts of distractions present themselves in the form of entertainment, relaxation, diversion, and zoning out; but strangely enough, the “easier way” can also come in the form of work, extreme sports, constant go, and achievement. I have seen some of the hardest working people do all they can to avoid the work of relationships. Whereas this movement toward extremes can be a product of our culture, it also seems to have deeper implications—we are want to avoid anything that we label unpleasant with whatever “vice” we have grown accustomed. The truth is, if we are looking for an “easy way” to move forward then we are looking for a unicorn. We must embrace that if there is to be any maturity gained it will not come without a fair amount of strain—which is hard.
The Grand Assumption:
First, we have to get over the idea that there is an easy way (in fact, I always try to keep in mind that there is the hard way, and the hard way!). I say this, not as a resigned defeat but a realistic assessment that I have actually come to trust and rely on. We tend to throw in the labeling of “hard” and “easy” as synonyms for “good” and “bad”. It may be a grand assumption of our culture that we see effort and strain as bad, and ease and comfort as good—the latter to be packaged and sold. Facing the idea that there is no growth without strain (or pain in some cases) allows us to stop avoiding and begin expecting and embracing the only way. That’s not to say that there is no place for enjoying a nice afternoon by the pool, but it should come as a reward for something gained, not a goal in life. So, the idea that hard is bad and ease is good engages us in the fear and avoidance of the hard way.
We Avoid the Hard Way: by distracting ourselves with other things.
The tendency to distract and avoid things that do not come easy can be both subtle and obvious. We may all agree that video games, YouTube, social media and smart phones of the younger types are an ever-present annoyance that speak of laziness and apathy; but perhaps more deceptive are the methods many use as “virtuous” distractions that don’t really seem like distractions at all: this includes work, church activity, sports, and whatever can keep us on the go. One example may be a husband and wife that are constantly on their son about his video game habits yet spend every amount of free time serving at their local church doing the work of the Lord—only to be distanced from their son and each other (most often without even knowing it!). Please don’t misunderstand, our virtuous distractions may be born out of a sincere need and desire, but if they are being used as a subtle method of distancing from emotionally difficult issues then we are taking a good thing and really using it for our own purposes. I have heard of many an emotionally distant pastor spend all his waking hours in the work of his congregation, only to leave his wife and kids at home to fend for themselves. In this way it appears the couple and pastor are working hard only at what comes “easiest” to them.
We Fear the Hard Way: because it generates uncomfortable feelings.
We may naturally gravitate toward reward, be it a new high score or a paycheck. When the pay-off for us is to just stay in the familiar then we can loop into chasing after what feels safe and unchallenging. This can explain our avoidance behavior when it comes to the hard emotions such as uncertainty, confusion, helplessness, hurt, rejection, and heartbreak. Such feelings can come up within relationships, tasks and obstacles in our life, and even within our own internal processes. Many of us have a hard time admitting that we fear our own feelings, so we can mask them or attempt to shove them down all together. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to express what is going in inside of us—so we keep running. With this it may help to accept that life is filled with the uncomfortable; as such, the conversation with your co-worker will be difficult, completing that assignment will not be fun, and going to the dentist will cause some anxiety. Remember, its uncomfortable…and it’s okay you will get through it!
The Hard Way is Individual: so we all have to reinvent the wheel.
There are things that are common to all of us, but at the same time, we are all very different. This individuality may present itself in a couple of different ways. For one, our differences may continually express themselves by what we consider hard and easy along with the methods we use to avoid them. As mentioned before, the workaholic may look down upon his video-gaming son but both may be skilled in the art of avoiding the difficult (how like all of us to look at our “thing” as better than someone else’s!). This line of thought can then keep us blind to our own vice in the way of putting off the hard way. As we continue to judge others as “less than” we will continue to assure ourselves that we are “better”—thus putting the two groups at odds when in reality they are very similar.
Secondly, our uniqueness comes by the way we each must go through our own difficulties (more on that later)—which happens with every generation: The older tell the younger which path to take and the younger takes the other path anyway. Try as they might, the adults in my life were making every effort to tell me which way would generate the “better” reward, but I persisted in the belief that I was different. The truth is, I was different, we all are, but not that different. We all have our individual thoughts and experiences, but there are such commonalities of human behavior across the board in that much of our actions can produce reliably predictable reward. Our tendency to reinvent the wheel speaks to the active nature of learning in that there is a type of understanding that comes intellectually and another that comes experientially or by doing. Think about it, if we all learned by just heeding prior warning, it could mean that we really aren’t doers—at least, not in the way that causes some discomfort. Keep in mind that we should heed others warnings, respect their position, and think long and hard about it, while at the same time not be afraid to make some mistakes on our own.
The Hard Way is Inevitable: which means we will have to face it sometime.
When talking about feelings I try to bring home that they are often the one door that can get us to the deeper thoughts that drive them (and us). This means that we must face them…there is no other way. So too the inevitability of the hard way. True, we may try to hold if off for some time but by doing so we may be putting ourselves through a different kind of difficulty. Take, for example, those who are struggling with addiction. Recovery programs will tell us that addiction is a symptom, a maladaptive coping mechanism used to avoid difficult feelings. Over time, the user, instead of working through such painful feelings will simply turn to whatever substance they have relied upon (Looking for an easier way). By doing so, all sorts of hardship may result including broken relationships, job loss, homelessness, and myriad physical problems—making for a very hard way. In recovery, the user must separate themselves from the substance and engage in the seemingly excruciating feelings that they have long been avoiding—which is also a hard way. As a less extreme example, consider the workaholic avoiding relational difficulties at home by spending all hours at the office—she will have to either watch her relationships crumble, or face the difficult feelings that come up by fully engaging them. Either way THERE IS NO AVOIDING WHAT IS DIFFICULT! (I hope I didn’t shout too loudly!)
The Hard Way is Transformative: because it wants us to grow.
The hard way: we avoid it, we fear it, its individual, its inevitable, and its amazing! Like few other things in our life the hard way can transform us into greater growth. In an earlier blog: Sometimes, its Gotta Hurt, I made mention that the hardship we are in the middle of could be telling us something—like we had better change and do something different. In this case the hard way wants us to grow, to experience the struggle and embrace it so we can come out stronger on the other end. We often think that if we had a few more dollars in our bank account we would not have any more struggles (try telling that to all the bankrupt lottery winners!). The hard truth is, working out of our debt or financial hardship is a much more surefire way to ensure we build the muscle to live within our means. Such difficulty can be transformative, because it asks of us something we never thought we could give until pressed to do so. It’s the strain of that extra rep of weight, the telling ourselves we don’t need that super yummy latte, having a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich for lunch again, or driving our old car for one more year. These mini hardships and denials to our avoidance of the difficult are all creating a change in us that will prepare us for days to come. Over time we can see the miracle of growth in our own lives, miracles that can only come, the hard way!
If you would like to read more on these issues go to www.downeyparkcounseling.com and check out the blog—you can also take a look at the video series on YouTube at Counseling 101. If you live in California and would like to make an appointment, either in person or through video telemedicine, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Miller is a hardworking man who did what he thought was right. He never asked too much of others and expected to be treated the same. He believed himself to be a good provider for his wife and teenage kids and was shocked to learn that his wife was unhappy. Joe had a bit of a temper but that was only when others didn’t do what they should—especially his 19-year-old son Brian whose only activity in life seemed staying in his room all day to play video games.
Genie, Joe’s wife, is a homemaker who spent years making sure the house was the way it should be. She found great purpose in taking care of her family and now that the kids were close to moving out, she was scared that she would be left with nothing to do. She often felt disappointed in herself and others but did not know why. Joe never seemed to be aware of what she needed, and it seemed like he didn’t care.
Brian is the oldest of Joe and Genie’s three children. He graduated last year by the skin of his teeth and is not sure which direction to take in life. He really doesn’t like conflict so tries to avoid his dad because there seems to always be tension there. When Brian thinks about what he is going to do with his life he gets anxiety. For Brian, video games are the only sure thing he has going for himself.
Believe it or not, Joe, Genie, and Brian are more alike than they realize, they all mean well in the course they have chosen in life, but something underneath has been eating away for some time and they have yet to put their respective fingers on it. Joe often found himself angry and having difficulty letting things go. Genie found herself hurt by other’s lack of care and concern for what she needed—after all, she was so busy taking care of others, wouldn’t someone take care of her? Brian doesn’t know what to do so is set adrift. Like many transitioning adults, the leap from dependent to independent is wrought with anxiety and confusion.
One of the biggest patterns I see in my office has to do with individuals not advocating for themselves. When I say advocate, I do not mean making sure our voice is the loudest or that we are first among others. In fact, I would argue such actions are a result of not advocating for ourselves sooner. Self-advocacy has to do with knowing what we want and need and having the ability to articulate it with ourselves and others. To be more precise, self-advocacy has four main criteria:
What is Self-Advocacy?
· Growing in self-understanding.
· Having a voice and asking for what we need.
· Empowering ourselves through action.
· Recognizing we are safe in who we are.
What Self-Advocacy is NOT:
· Waiting until we are desperate or in a rage to express ourselves.
· Dismissing our needs and wants as selfish or frivolous.
· Desperately trying to grab for our needs above all else (Acting out in inappropriate ways).
· Expecting others or the situation to deliver us (which is very dis-empowering).
In the case of the Miller’s, they may have waited many years before realizing their anger, disappointment, and anxiety may be, in part, because they have not recognized their own wants and needs let alone expressed it to those closest to them. The pattern for Joe is that he works hard and expects others to do as he does (after all, it’s only common sense!). Many nights he will come home and the garbage will not be taken out or a few chores not done to his liking. He gets tired of asking and so takes on the task himself. This then creates a bit of anger which he then tells himself not to feel, but then is so fed up, he explodes. His wife and kids then label Joe as a hot head and lay low for a bit until things go back to “normal”—which means continued stuffing down for a later explosion.
For Genie, her desire to be a "good wife” has instilled in her the idea that she should not see to her own inner world but be wholly caught up in what everyone else around her is doing. Ask her what she would do if she had a weekend to herself and she would genuinely have no answer. In this case, the idea of being with herself is totally foreign to the point that, unless there is a child to attend to, she is at a loss of what to do with herself. This emptiness then catches up with her when the kids move out, bringing an unhappiness she will have trouble shaking.
Brian, who may have had many things done for him over the years. Now does not know how to act for himself. He then escapes in a world that he has grown accustomed to—one that does not judge or challenge. Brian too gets angry and disappointed, like his parents, because he has a hard time making a distinction between what the environment or others provide for him and what he must provide for himself. This lack of self-advocating empowerment then builds more fear and anxiety thereby getting him all the more stuck.
To be clear, each person in this story may have layers of what they need to work on, but one of the first steps in meeting such needs is the concept of self-advocacy. Without it, we may end up desperate, angry, abusive, fearful, anxious, depressed, and confused—to name a few. Self-advocacy, as stated above, involves being aware of what we need and moving toward meeting said need, before survival mode kicks in! Remember, self-advocacy is not rolling over others, it is a timely awareness of what we need coupled with action to go about meeting those needs. It respects the self as it respects others. Keep in mind I use the term “become” because we are all in the process of becoming and must distinguish from the term “be”—there is a difference (see #4). Here are five ways we can become an advocate for ourselves:
1. Become Attuned to You:
Our first and primary relationship is with ourselves: our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves. If we are not able to sit and be with ourselves, we will more heavily rely on others or our environment (things) to meet our needs. For Joe, his anger may be more a feeling of helplessness and disappointment. Becoming attuned to his true feelings will enable him to express sincere emotion to his wife and kids thereby displaying less hot-head and more human. Clearing our head, becoming aware of our emotions, meaning in our lives, our thoughts and our bodies can take work if we are not used to such practice. If you are having a difficult time advocating for yourself this may be a good place to start. More will be written on this in blogs to come.
2. Become Contained (Keep the Boundaries):
Containing ourselves does not mean we must be by ourselves or do things wholly on our own. Containment is about knowing where we stop and others (or the environment) start. Both Joe and Brian have some confusion about who is responsible for their feelings (or even what their feelings are for that matter). Genie knows she is disappointed, but her feeling is about what she expects from others and is unable (or unwilling?) to ask. Genie has gone about guessing at what others may need and trying to be good enough to meet them—then expecting others to do the same for her. Our boundaries include our personal, relational, and environmental boundaries which will be spoken of in further blogs. For now, here is a brief rundown:
How we are to be contained in our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves (four parts). As mentioned above, this requires knowing what emotions we are having and why; What meaning life has for us including our values and purpose (spiritual); What thoughts we are having and whether or not we need to challenge or accept them; How our physical selves react including body sensations, physical needs, and awareness. As adults, we must develop a certain degree of containment for ourselves if we are to interact in a healthy way with others.
This includes our emotional, spiritual, mental and physical selves in interaction with those around us. What other’s emotional experience is and what we expect of them; understanding the meaning, purpose and values of others; relating to and discovering other’s thoughts and internal processes; respecting others physically. Again, all of our relational boundaries require that we know what is ours vs. other’s and respecting them wholly as other people and not just extensions of ourselves—which requires healthy communication.
This refers to our interaction with our environment: all things outside of ourselves and other people. To be wholly involved in the world around us while at the same time understanding ourselves and others is very important to our mental health. If we are not connected to who we are but chase after things, we run the risk of relying on them to deliver our happiness; conversely, if we do not interact with the world around us and get stuck in our head or lean on others to be okay, we go too far in the other unhealthy direction.
3. Become Honest: with Ourselves Before Others:
When it comes to self-advocacy, the role of self-honesty cannot be overstated. Having said that I will not go so far as saying we are lying to ourselves, instead I frame it as being disconnected (or numbed) to ourselves out of confusion and desperation. Joe, Genie, and Brian are having a very difficult time being honest with themselves yet very much want to be “honest” with those round them. To be honest within oneself can bring up some very difficult emotions we have spent a great deal of time and effort avoiding. That’s okay! Such emotions are trying to tell us something about who we are. The Miller family, in a desperate effort to avoid such pain, looks to most everything (or everyone) else to change before they do. Honesty requires connection as we dig into what we feel and why. In being honest and not running we empower ourselves to grow in new ways—remember, there is no growth without some discomfort or pain. This then can generate a humility and understanding toward others which then allows us to approach them in true love and not one-upmanship. If Joe were to be honest with himself about his true feelings of powerlessness and disappointment, he can then approach his family in true connection rather than a “me versus you” arrangement.
4. Become Goal and Process Oriented:
Keeping in mind that in all these steps we are not simply being (as in already there) we are becoming, or in the process of. To be both goal and process-oriented hits on this very point. The goals we set for ourselves create a picture of being, the process is becoming. The Millers, just like all of us, have found themselves stuck in a daily cycle of action and reaction which will carry on indefinitely until they spend some time reflecting on who or what they want to be, and then move in those directions to become. This, again, requires attunement to self and proper boundaries. What often takes place is that we have goals for other’s behavior but not our own. We will readily say, “If you didn’t do this, I wouldn’t do that!” and wait for the other to change. If Genie wants to stop being hurt and disappointed in everyone else’s behavior, then she needs to find alternative mindsets and actions she can take in order to make this possible—which may mean changing her responses toward other’s behavior. For example, if she wants her son and husband to step up around the house she can ask with a loving boundary and then go about living her life, not dependent on them doing what she asks to be happy. If in the past she has asked, they have not responded, and then she does it herself only to grow in resentment, a change in her behavior could mean she stops doing it and lets them live with their own consequences. This would mean she would need to measure her own internal responses to letting them go through the hardship of their lack of action. The goal is to say, “I will not swoop in and do it anyway” the process is “what happens to me when I let the chores not get done?” Understand this is a simplified version and there are many nuances to be sure, but the idea remains. We must set goals for ourselves and appreciate and embrace the process that we go through to get there—being and becoming.
5. Become Empowered:
After we are able to communicate properly with ourselves and others, take on honest look, set reasonable personal goals and be aware of our process, we must step forward in action. Empowering ourselves means not depriving ourselves. Oftentimes, when we deprive our own needs we end up acting out in inappropriate ways. Take Brian for example, his stagnation is more than likely a distraction from the discomfort he is feeling. By distracting himself he takes away his power and can spiral further into depression—which he then wants to distract from. If he moves forward in digging into his emotions and asking why they are there he could discover that he is scared. What Brian really needs is to move, in some way, forward—in self-examination, getting off the couch, or asking for help. He may not have all the answers as he steps out, but by advocating for himself in getting what he might need, he doesn’t continue to starve (deprive) himself of finding meaning and purpose. No doubt this step for him may involve support from loved ones or a good counselor as he navigates all of his issues.
Another area that comes to mind in empowering oneself involves the importance of having fun. Believe it or not, there are many out there who have a very difficult time taking in God’s blessings and experiencing the joy therein. Those with a desire to control the environment (see boundaries) or others very often do not let themselves experience the world around them. They may forgo having a nice meal because they are budget focused, or not play on the monkey bars because it’s not very “adult”. By depriving ourselves these small things we can become consumed with avoiding discomfort and managing everyone and everything around us—which leads to more discomfort. The direction then is to let go, allow ourselves some joy, and stop our dis-empowering control (of others and the environment) and take more empowering control (of our direction and decisions).
When we move toward self-advocacy, we can discover that we need not rely on others to be safe or happy. This self-containment then allows us to have healthy connection toward others and our environment, not leaning on them too heavily to deliver us. For the Miller’s, they may come together as a family and decide they need some help, or one of them may stop the pattern by getting help by themselves—a true example of self-advocacy. It may help to keep in mind we need not wait for others around us to move with us, change can come in the system when one person makes the leap. Such change can be clunky at first but, with enough time, the effort will pay off—in changed attitudes and minds. If you have any questions about self-advocacy, shoot us an email at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
During this time of uncertainty, it’s important to make sure we are staying safe and sane. As many of us have our work and life routines disrupted, we may find ourselves struggling with confusion, uncertainty and even despair. Whereas we may not be able to change where we can go, we can change how we respond. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we weather the days ahead.
1. Develop a routine:
One of the areas of greatest difficulty with the “new normal” is that our life routines have been thrown off kilter. This cannot be underestimated! Our routines help bring structure and certainty to everyday life. When that routine is gone (however potentially monotonous it may have seemed) we can feel unsettled leading to mild anxiety and even depression—this is true of both kids and adults.
So, even though it can be our habit to drift into doing nothing we do best to place rails on ourselves. This means developing a new routine: Get up, shower, get dressed and plan to do what you can around the house or yard. A simple routine for ourselves and family can be vital in adding necessary structure. Sit down, jot down a schedule, and do your best to stick with it. Start with sleep and wake up times, time with the family, and with yourself, and expand from there.
2. Limit the news:
When we say limit the news we do not mean sticking our head in the sand; however, it can be a habit to try and find as much information as we can to relieve our anxiety—be careful of this! More information often does not limit anxiety, it stokes it. With conflicting reports and media hype, more information can leave us confused and panicked. The same can be said of social media. Set a time for your news watching or reading as well as social media (say 20 minutes) and end it there—go and do something productive.
3. Be objective: Stay away from “if only” and “what if…”.
Along with limiting the news it’s important to remain objective. Keep in mind that there are actually many things out there that can cause us harm that don’t get the media focus of COVID-19; in fact, as many as 600,000 people die each year in the United States from diseases which a diet change can prevent—that’s 50,000 a month or over 1,600 a day! Imagine if the news media had daily stories of such a death toll and then informed us on how to keep from dying! Whereas the Coronavirus is not harmless, it’s also yet another thing behavior change can ward off.
Going along with keeping an objective head means not engaging in the “what if” and “if only” mindset. Remember these two statements are actually fantasies of our mind and haven’t actually happened yet; so, if you are constricted with fear over the idea of “What if my family gets sick?” Take the common-sense and necessary precautions and then live your life—not focusing on what hasn’t happened but taking active steps toward what has. Remember, if our mental real estate is caught up on the “what if’s” then we will have little capacity to make the best of what is.
4. Be careful of the phone:
Our smartphones are useful and powerful tools, but they can also be tremendous time killers—sucking up moments we can use to add to our lives. Many of us use our phones to unwind and blank out from a day of constantly trying to solve problems. Whereas its good to take a break from trying to solve everything, the phone can actually keep us in the part of our brains (the frontal lobe) that we are trying to get a break from. One of the primary questions I ask those suffering from anxiety is, “How much time do you spend on your phone?” Most often those who are burning out and anxious tend to spend goodly chunks of time playing phone games or scrolling through social media. Set a time for your phone habit, replace it with mindfulness or ideas you can come up with to be productive, even put the phone away from you when there is no specific need. If its difficult to do this at first, take heart, the muscle will build itself.
5. Engage in activity:
With all this extra time we have on our hands (with schedule in hand and limits to the news and social media) we can now open up our creativity and pursue activities that truly add to our lives. Many of us will struggle with this given our work, eat, sleep, work again routines that are now in flux. Use this time to discover things you might like: go on walks, pick up a hobby, work in the yard, set up family time or time with your significant other. I’ve been amazed at how many more people I have seen outside these past few weeks. Engaging activity helps us build into ourselves instead of relying on others or things we may be dependent on. Taking time to reflect on who we are and what we can do instead of what we can’t do empowers us to press on no matter what.
If we keep in mind a few simple yet effective ways to turn this uncertain time into a blessing, we will have much greater resilience for any change to come. Simply spending time avoiding what we consider troubling will eventually cause us more trouble in the long run. By meeting the challenge and moving forward in what we can do we will become less aware of what we cannot do. If you are still having trouble snapping out of the funk, remember, Downey Park Counseling Associates is open for in-office and video sessions for your convenience.
Chris Oneth LMFT
Downey Park Counseling Associates
I was stressed! I had ten minutes to take a shower, shave, and get dressed before leaving to take my son to school. Without getting into too much detail, I probably could have started earlier before my walk and workout. Now, I was under the gun and wanted to blame someone. Thoughts in my head strung a racing narrative that confirmed the piling responsibilities and deadlines I had to meet if my day were to be a success. As a result, the interaction with my wife and son was…tense, strained and…my doing. When my wife reminded me that I should have started earlier (or not take so long with breakfast, or shorten the walk, etc.)—I balked. “Okay, I know, but that isn’t going to help me now!”
Many of us know this story: we do something, it causes us (and others) some pain and discomfort, we may (or may not be) confronted, and finally, we just want it to go away. We are always want to avoid any type of stress, pain, bad feelings or discomfort; but the truth is: sometimes, its gotta hurt.
How it Hurts:
Whether we are rushed for time, agonizing over a poor decision we have made, running into hardship after hardship, the stress of being financially tight, the frustration over a protracted argument with a spouse, the loss of a job: “pain” comes in a variety of forms—the same is true in therapy. I often compare my time with clients to the cleaning out an infected or improperly healed-over wound. In order to begin the healing process, we have to do some cleaning—which can be painful, even excruciating.
The pain can be both subtle and overt. It’s easy to feel hurt, saddened and frustrated at some relational difficulties that we cannot avoid, what is most difficult is to accept discomfort, uneasiness, and even avoidance as a type of pain. In the workplace, if we get tense and rigid at the anticipation of teaming up with a coworker, it may help to realize that what we might want to call “frustration” is really a type of pain.
If we are continually being offended or slighted by so many people around us—which can be ever prevalent in a society that takes personal offense at a premium. In our “offense culture” we can easily find things to be upset over—so much so that real tragedy gets drowned out. Not to say that being bothered is not legitimate but its full weight may be found in the reaction, not the initial action.
Personal pain can come in the form we feel and in a form we give. The oft used expression “hurt people, hurt people” may seem cheesy but it holds vital truth. We may not stop and realize how challenging our situation is but we can take a good look at our behaviors (and no, avoiding them does not help!). Therapists will often check those who continually express anger at others for depression. The angry young man isn’t just a cultural catch phrase, it can point to deeper rumblings.
Pain also comes in the form of improperly translated shame. Remember, guilt can be repaid, shame can never be repaid and so it keeps pressing—over and over again. Shame can keep us from change and so has a tendency to be avoided at all costs. The shame cycle goes like this: someone points out an area in which we need change, we feel the sting of shame (usually with the “I’m flawed” narrative), we take offense or feel even worse, which brings more shame—and avoidance—thus continuing our unhealthy behavior.
Why it Hurts:
1). Fear and Avoidance:
When asking the question, “why” we really must be prepared for the answer. The reason I say this is because many of us ask why so that we can point to a situation or a person outside of ourselves. The why question can also help us avoid doing anything about anything. If we continue to ask why then we can sit and rub our chin instead of getting out of our chair. Besides, maybe the reason something is hurting is because we haven’t done anything about it. Avoidance may feel comfortable as we kick the can down the road but it also feeds our shame and does not deal with the problem.
It’s true that we can find ourselves in situations that are painful: a destructive relationship, a harsh work environment, even discrimination, but what we may not be able to change in others we need not accept in ourselves. Take a harsh work environment: Whereas it’s true that snapping up another job can be scary and difficult, it’s also true that we may not be as trapped as we think we are. We are not prohibited from seeking a different line of work, modifying our behavior, or seeking counsel in our situation. I have worked with many who have changed their tack and found encouraging results.
2). Natural Consequences:
Why may also lead us to realize that we often hurt over our own actions and behaviors—hitting our own hand with a hammer will hurt, bad! Looking back on the work example, what we may want to call discrimination someone else may call just rewards (keeping in mind there are different forms of discrimination). We are all want to minimize our role in causing ourselves hardship, what we must be careful of is missing the real issue lest we get ourselves stuck by routinely pointing at situations and others.
When going through pain, it may seem obvious to many around us why but can be very difficult to see for the person in the fight. I have known many who continue to put themselves through the most difficult of circumstances because they feel they just can’t (or don’t want to) change—which could also tie back to the shame cycle. If circumstances snowball and continue to get worse, which causes us to feel the failure so we avoid, so our situation gets worse as more poor decisions are made (you get the picture). I may not want my hand to hurt as I continue to whack it with a hammer but that’s just the way it goes.
Many who suffer with addiction will confess that they hate their situation and their actions, while others in the same boat will want all to go well for them even though they have burnt bridges, strained relationships, lost jobs and continue to use. This sort of “magical thinking” rests on the idea that circumstances should go well because we want them to, not because we should do something different. These stuck folks have a very hard time seeing the natural consequences of their behaviors. In a sense, such consequences are a gift from God that can help direct and shape us for the better. Those who don’t want to accept them will continue to put themselves through pain—all the while trying desperately to avoid it (a paradox any way we look at it).
3) Poor Boundaries:
For the co-dependent, issues may continue to hurt because of the tendency to take on other’s pain. This happens on two sides of a contract: the one comes from the person who always wants to be rescued and continues to avoid the pain of responsibility; the other comes from the one who rescues and can’t see their loved one go through the pain of responsibility. This creates an undue burden on the person who is always swooping in—feeling like they are taking everything on their shoulders and straining under the weight. In this case boundaries work two ways, what we do to others and what we allow them to do to us (or expect from us). Keeping a firm handle on letting “you be you, and me be me” means that, if I am co-dependent, I don’t keep rescuing your or taking your pain as my own. If I am grandiose then I have to accept my pain and not try to demand you deliver me from it. This takes a lot of work but is well worth it!
Hopefully, we all know what it feels like to regret something we have said or done. I know that can sound strange but regret is, actually, a good thing (in good measure) that can indicate we care. Regret can come from mistakes we have made—which we all do! Some may try to avoid regret by not admitting to ever making mistakes. Running across a person who never admits to a mistake is not a pleasant deal; Usually, such people are obnoxious and draining. Regret can also tie back into the shame cycle, in which case we must be careful to use regret as a vehicle for change and thus, redeem what it is there for. To regret for a moment and not a lifetime allows us to see things in proper balance. Remember, if our regret does not lead to change it has a good chance of becoming shame, which is toxic.
5) Confrontation: Me and You Against You:
Many of us have dealt with that loved one: spouse, sibling, parent, child etc. that does not do confrontation well. Being confronted can cause anger, hurt, and avoidance—and for very good reason. Looking back on the Stages of Acceptance we see that avoidance is a common maneuver as we knee-jerk our way to shirking responsibility. But being confronted hurts in a couple of ways: for one, if you come to me with an issue I may attack you because you are the face of what is causing me pain (me against you), but I will also attack you because deep down I know that I am wrong (me and you against you)—which links again to shame. In this I may feel like I can go toe-to-toe with you and all your flaws, but you and me against me can be way to overwhelming—and painful.
One of the most difficult, and needed, aspects of my job can be confrontation. There are many therapists who out right avoid, and feel there is no place for, confrontation (and think so for good reason), but there may come a time when we confront the behavior that is hurting them. If I tell you that hitting your hand with a hammer is causing you the pain you hate so much and then you get angry at me because I point out something you are doing wrong; well, sometimes its gotta hurt! Confrontation in this way can come in many forms and most certainly not on the first meeting. When rapport is built, trust established, and a good alliance is made a gentle question or observation can be both needed—and painful! I try to be very careful in gauging the situation and even ask “So what would you like to do?” before I just lay it on. Because of the tender nature of the situation I will often wait until I am asked—making every attempt to not gratify my own goals and visions for the client I help.
Why it Needs to Hurt:
Bad decisions, poor life choices, uneasiness, confrontation—there seems no end to the list of stuff that hurts. What is important to remember is that we, as people, are want to avoid pain, sometimes at all costs. In this way (and I’ve said it before) we treat pain like a burning building, we go the opposite direction in hopes of having it just go away. The problem is that many of our issues are engulfed in the flames of pain—avoid the flames and the problem never changes. That is why I try to help clients “run into the burning building”, put out the flames and face the problem (and the pain) head on. In doing so it helps to recognize a few of the following:
How to Deal With the Hurt:
Not dealing with the pain is not dealing with the issue. Whether we are confronting ourselves or someone we are close to we have to accept that sometimes its gotta hurt! Simply put, we deal with the hurt by facing it, appreciating it, and allowing it to hurt so we are motivated to do something different. In this we must realize that there is a type of hurt that brings life and another type that brings death. The hurt that brings life is one in which we say “ah, yes, I did that and I am wrong. Thank God I have a chance to know what I have done and to change!” The hurt that brings death is the one we avoid, with the idea that to accept the need to change means we are hopelessly flawed and unable to recover. It is a lie to believe that by accepting and facing responsibility we are somehow irreparably damaged. We also need not wallow in our pain. If it hurts, then look for ways to change it—first ourselves and then our situation. Remember, the support of good friends and an insightful counselor can help. If you or someone you know is in need of extra support, go to our website www.downeyparkcounseling.com or like our Facebook page at Downey Park Counseling Associates.