Comfortably Numb: When Avoiding Pain is Not at All Comfortable.
“I just want to be happy,” you say.
Translation: “I’d like to feel only the pleasant feelings from here on in, thanks very much.”
I get it. A reasonable request, by anyone’s standards.
The thing is not all pain is created equally. There’s tidy pain … and then there’s messy pain.
Tidy pain is the pain that is reasonable and expected in the face of a situation or life event (e.g. grief after losing someone you love). It’s also the pain that we accept in the service of doing something important to live by our values (showing patience toward our children when we’d rather scream the house down), or the pain of working towards a goal (getting up at 5am every day to train for a marathon).
Messy pain is what we experience when we attempt to become comfortably numb. Messy pain is the pain we bring on ourselves by either struggling or avoiding pain (and creating more of it in the process).
Avoidance has a thousand forms. You can inject yourself with heroin, but – just as easily – the contents of that needle could be Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. It could be food, or caffeine, or work. It could be Netflix, or sex, or bulimia, or exercise, online shopping, or multi-tasking.
Even if the thing looks like it’s healthy on the surface – like counting calories or helping everyone around you – if you’re doing it to avoid some other pain in your life then at some stage you’re going to run into some problems.
You can’t selectively numb against feelings. Don’t want the sadness? Then you can’t have joy either. Don’t want fear? Then you can’t have calm either. Numbing one type of emotion but not the other is simply not possible. You can either tune in, or out. Feel it, or be numb to it. But not both.
This is the problem with avoidance. When we try to numb against the uncomfortable stuff, we also numb the beauty, and the joy and the peace. It’s tough, but being awake to it all is the key to living a full and rich life.
So, do I mean you just have to have the pain?
Well, yes. But there’s coping with pain resiliently, and then there’s not coping at all.
Approaching pain with resilience looks like this:
Acknowledge the pain.
Acknowledging the pain means bringing awareness to it. It means opening up to the pain and noticing it for what it is, without judgement and harsh words towards ourselves, and instead, with curiosity and gentleness.
Name the pain.
Things are less scary when we know what they are. It’s much easier to delude ourselves that we have no control over something when we haven’t identified it – out loud, in the light, in the mirror. Naming the pain (grief, sadness, frustration, jealousy, anger, hurt, overwhelm, confusion etc.) is different to naming the form of avoidance (procrastination, overthinking, projection, running away, hiding, covering it up etc). It’s important to name both, but start with the pain because that’s the source of avoidance.
Love yourself through the pain.
Accepting the pain doesn’t mean we need to just put up with it. Yes, we need to feel it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take care of ourselves through the process. Look after your body. Look after your mind. Be tender with your soul.
Choose not to project the pain.
Before we get all perfectionistic, it’s important to acknowledge that none of us is immune to our stuff. Sometimes we unconsciously lash out. We say things we don’t mean. We behave in ways that are not consistent with our values. But when we bring conscious awareness to our pain, it becomes much easier to take responsibility for it, and for our actions in response to it.
Hold hope and courage and possibility closely.
My favourite proverb is, “This too shall pass.” No state of pain stays in the same shape, at the same intensity, permanently. The good news and the bad news is that emotions are transient. Thank God, we scream, when confronted with pain. OH NO! we cry, as calm vanishes and stress returns. It’s all impermanent.
What if we were to bring an attitude of hopefulness? What if we were to face it courageously and see how it works out? What if we were to stay open to the possibilities of what life is like when we stop running from pain?
*Hint: you won’t die. And it’s a lot better than you imagine, because you get to live completely, rather than exist in some micro-managed, stiffly boarded, sheet covered version of a life that’s designed to hide you from the hard stuff.
Asking for help when you need it, even from yourself.
Please, please put your hand up. There are people who will show up for you when you ask them to. But you need to ask first, and that means being vulnerable and admitting you’re not perfect, and God forbid, you HAVE FEELINGS. And if the person you’d like to hold your hand is not available right now, remember you can hold your own hand. You can choose to stay instead of walk out on yourself. You can choose to help yourself.
Living a life that is full of vitality, meaning, and richness is about feeling the full spectrum of human emotion, from light to dark. When you choose to stop the struggle against pain, you give up on running and hiding, and instead, give yourself a chance to feel and flow. Life opens up.
When you choose to stop the struggle against pain, you give up on running and hiding, and instead, give yourself a chance to feel and flow.
It never becomes pain-free. But dropping the struggle allows you to choose to remove the cage of avoidance. You can remove your own limitations, as long as you accept that there is always a risk of pain when you care deeply. I’d argue the pain is worth it, because what else are we going to do with our lives?