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."
"Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering"
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Dr. Lance is a psychotherapist in practice in Glendale. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.
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