So many people who walk in my door are struggling to change reality. They are obsessively looking for ways to control the uncontrollable. They are trying to turn themselves into people who are invulnerable to hurt, perhaps through minimizing their feelings or being defensively angry. They are trying to behave in ways that they hope will cause indifferent or even cruel people to change. They are trying to bury their pain under alcohol, weed, food, social media - anything to distract or anesthetize.
So many of the psychological symptoms that people suffer from originate from an attempt to escape a painful truth. Maybe that truth is that a parent was too psychologically unwell to be emotionally attuned and loving. Maybe it is that a profound loss cannot be undone. Maybe it is that there is a randomness to life that can shock and destroy what you thought to be true about the world.
The hard to accept truth is that pain is part of life. We all experience it.
Marsha Linehan, the originator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, draws on Buddhism to differentiate between pain and suffering. Pain is our natural reaction to the terrible things that can happen in life.
Suffering is what occurs when we try to deny our pain. When we try to bury it under a mountain of denial or anger. It is the collateral damage that these attempts at avoidance lead to, such as rumination, addiction, isolation, aggression, self-harm, or obsessive efforts to control.
This avoidance is often times an unconscious response to pain. It is not a moral failure of any kind. Typically it is simply how we have previously been taught to react to pain by the important people in our lives.
According to Linehan, the opposite of avoidance is radical acceptance. The term acceptance can be tricky here because it may at first sound like we are condoning the pain. In this case, acceptance simply means that we acknowledge the reality of the situation.
We stop trying to avoid the truth of the pain and instead start to take care for ourselves. We gives ourselves time to recover. We self-soothe and lean on supportive people. We reach out from help from therapists or psychiatrists if needed. We acknowledge we have pain and that we don’t need to feel ashamed of that.
This is tremendously easier said than done. There’s a reason we try to avoid pain. It hurts. Badly.
And, there will be times when we need a break. It’s ok to watch a comedy in the midst of heartbreak, or to chat about nothing with friends rather than spend all day intensely focused on hardship.
Radical acceptance is an important tool we can draw on when we find ourselves stuck in suffering. When the temptation is to try to find a way we could have controlled what happened or are about to take another drink to try and numb the pain. We can instead say, “This thing that happened or this emotion I feel is so hard. It really hurts. Maybe I need to cry and find some release. Maybe I need to talk with someone I trust. Maybe I need to show myself some kindness and soothe myself.”
We only begin to heal from pain once we acknowledge it and begin to take care of ourselves.
Reach out if you’d like to learn more about how to accept and heal from your pain.