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August 2002
THE AVOIDANCE OF LEGITIMATE SUFFERING
By Jeff Lance, Ph.D.

"To a greater or lesser extent, the first ways in which the world has made sense to us continue to underpin our whole subsequent experience and actions."
R.D. Laing

"Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering"
Carl Jung

The world is in pain. The world is trying to pretend it is not in pain. We desperately try to hide this fact from each other and ourselves. We act like strangers to each other, and are actually strangers to ourselves. We deny our pain to others, and ourselves and when asked" how are you", we say "fine". How do we get to this inauthentic experience of others and ourselves? One way to understand this is to see our lives partly as a lifelong attempt to block out and avoid experiences that could reactivate long repressed and dissociated pain and longings. Pain and longings that were just too distressing to cope with ourselves, at the time it happened, and the age we were. Having no enlightened witness to empathize with our pain and help us process it, we became numb to it. In other words, this pain is repressed, dissociated, avoided, denied and unprocessed. Who knows how much of this avoidance of unprocessed pain motivates us in our interactions with others, spouses, and family. My hunch is more then we want to imagine.

Adults who have shut off awareness of their own needs and feelings lack empathy, compassion, and understanding for themselves and others. This is not only a dangerous state of affairs, but also leads to a sense of detachment, unreality, superficiality/acting, and inauthentic relating with other human beings. We are basically living a lie with Ourselves and others about our suffering and pain.

  1. Over the past 50 or so years a great deal has been studied about attachment motivation in humans. It seems that we are innately wired for social connection, and specifically, initially, a deep connection to caretakers. It has been estimated that 40 to 50 percent of attachments formed in early life are insecure. This can be of an anxious/ambivalent , avoidant , or disorganized type. These insecure styles of attachment can stem from painful and distressing ruptures in the needed attunement and availability of caretakers responsiveness, and/ or painful chaotic and abusive parents, whose children are overwhelmed by the abuse. We carry these experiences of distress/pain into adulthood, and they can show up as relationship problems, communication difficulty, being out of touch with ourselves and others, and issues of mistrust in others as a secure source of comfort and connection. These are just some of the ways this can express itself. Detachment and anxiety can be styles of living and relating later in life, in an attempt to feel safe and invulnerable. This obviously can influence our willingness to stay in touch with painful states within ourselves.
  2. We enter the world with built in expectations of getting an in- arms experience and having responsiveness from our caretakers. Just like ears are the expectation of hearing, so we have expectations for emotional responsiveness. But, often our caretakers, due to their own character pathology, circumstance etc., are not able or willing to meet these emotional needs in an adequate enough way. This leads to more pain and distress, which can be tolerated for only so long, or only to a certain threshold, and then we once again begin to shut down aspects of needing and the feelings associated with them. This can also lead to a tendency for numbing and detachment from feelings and needs later in life.
  3. As mentioned in section 2, when our needs go chronically unmet, we experience distressing feeling about this situation, in an attempt to cue our caretakers that we are distressed. But this is often futile, since it is their lack of responsiveness to meeting our basic emotional needs, that also interferes with them picking up on, and responding to our distress signals, and feelings states, of not having our needs adequately met. Or they may get hostile, or annoyed, that we are expressing this distress to them. This leads to what I call a second order wound. This is the wound of feeling all alone in neediness, with hostility or apathy as a response to this distress that we can't regulate by ourselves. As time goes on we reject our own needs and feelings, and begin to block them out of our awareness. As an adult we may not even know what we feel or need emotionally.
  4. This all leads to a very dangerous and unhealthy experience of relating as human beings. We see each other as strangers, with mistrust about sharing ourselves honestly, genuinely, and authentically with others. We tend to fear this vulnerability, feeling like we have to hide our pain and suffering from others fearing they may misuse the information and hurt us, or ridicule us. It is not that this can't happen. But, that we have set up a kind of paranoid distrust of others, and they probably are doing the same with us. So that we create a suspicious fear among us that is self reinforcing. I hear this from patients in therapy that feel you can't reveal your true feelings and needs in the world. This unfortunately seems to have come true for many of us, although, I wonder if this isn't a collective self-fulfilling prophecy. This may be one reason people seek out therapy to have someone listen in a emotionally safe and secure setting, without feeling like they will be used and betrayed if they reveal themselves. The cumulative effect of this state of affairs is a lack of empathy, compassion, and understanding of adults for their own feelings and longings, and for those of others who are hiding inside themselves, just like they are.
These factors, and many more I haven't touched on, lead to a kind of inhumane and unreal feeling of stangeness, rather than a feeling of connection and togetherness in our suffering. So we hide our pain from each other, put on our marks, and create a kind of stage play hiding behind roles that we feel protect us from the truth that we are all in pain and suffering to one degree or another.

Dr. Lance is a psychotherapist in practice in Glendale. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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