Over the past three years, Laurie’s life consisted of one doctor visit after another. She used to be a jogger and a regular at the health club. Then she began to experience a lack of energy and had muscle pain which was totally incapacitating.
Initially, she tried seeing a chiropractor. Later, she consulted an acupuncturist and finally wound up in a neurologist’s office, but none of them found anything wrong. Finally, an internist recommended she seek psychotherapy. His statement offended her, but, in spite of her negativity, she sought therapy.
During her first session, she said, “I’m not imagining this. I’ve never felt this way before. I’ve always been physically active and I’m not someone who pampers herself. I have real pain and, if nothing else, maybe you can help me live with it.”
Laurie’s problem isn’t atypical. Many people, when faced with pain provoked by stressful situations, or self-realizations that are difficult to swallow, desperately search for a way to avoid it. Countless individuals turn to alcohol. If you drink enough, you don’t worry about what’s really bothering you. Similarly, if you drug enough, you don’t have to face you. If you’re sufficiently depressed, or create significant problems with your parents, spouse, children or co-workers, you don’t have to look at you. For numerous others, too much or too little weight can serve as a way of avoiding reality. The rationalization being, “I don’t have to look at me. My problem is fat.” There are countless other smokescreens that are equally as effective. **Please note** I am not saying that every angry, depressed, physically sick, overweight or addicted individual is hiding from themself. However, I am saying that many people do use these behavioral patterns to avoid facing themselves.
In spite of this, when you see someone whose discomfort is so great that they are willing to endure medical procedures, take medication and be incapacitated by pain, it’s hard to believe that they would do that to themself. The truth is, they wouldn’t, if they did it consciously. But, they don’t decide, “I’ll stay fat, drunk, drugged or have emotional problems so I can become preoccupied with them, rather than deal with myself.” Instead, it’s an unconscious process, one many of you might find hard to believe.
After saying the same thing to Laurie, she said, “You don’t expect me to accept that I am doing this to myself? No one would do that.”
My answer was, “They do and it’s possible, that you may be doing it, as well. I’m not accusing you. I’m only attempting to offer you a new way to look at your problem.”
“Why in the world would I do this to myself? Wouldn’t it be just as easy to face whatever it is that’s bothering me?”
Let me share a personal example that might provide an answer for Laurie and any of you whose coping techniques are damaging to your relationships or destructive to your daily adjustment.
I was walking through our bedroom, when my wife asked, “What have you been up to?” I said, “What are you talking about?” “I’m talking about that contusion on your leg.” I looked and saw a horrible, red and black bruise, fully eight inches wide. I had no idea what had caused it. She said, “How could that happen without you knowing?” Her next statement - I’d like to think in jest - was, “Maybe you were in bed with some wicked woman, having wild sex.” My thought was, “No, I’d remember that!” But, short of having Alzheimer’s, I had no explanation. Several days later, the answer shot through my head. Three days earlier, I had gone to the dentist with an abscessed tooth and the dentist gave me hat seemed to be a dozen shots. Now, I’m a wuss when it comes to dentists and needles so, while she was giving me the shots, I grabbed hold of my thigh and squeezed for dear life. The purpose was to obscure the pain from the injections, but, to do so, I had to create an even greater pain.
It goes directly back to what Laurie was asking, “Why in the world would somebody do that?” override the pain of a lesser nature from a different source. Initially, that seems illogical. Why would I prefer a greater hurt than the pain created by the needles? The answer; the pain in my thigh was self-inflicted. I caused it and I could stop it. I was in charge of that pain. I had no control over the pain from the injections.
What I am suggesting is that, in order to avoid what’s really bothering us, many of us create discomfort far worse than the upset we’re trying to avoid. For example, how many times have you anguished over a decision, an appointment or a confrontation? Possibly, you wanted to tell someone what you really felt, but you were frightened they might be angry or would reject you? So, you stressed over it. However, after you finally faced them, your thoughts were, “Why didn’t I do that to begin with? It was so much easier than the upset I caused myself.”
All of which goes to say that, whenever you see yourself reacting to an “excessive degree”, it is essential that you:
1) Do a reality check. Make sure that what you’re feeling or responding to is the real issue. Be careful, however - we lie to ourselves, so you may have to ask, “What am I really upset about?” several times before you own up to your truth.
2) Consider what else is going on in your life that could be contributing to your upset that’s too painful to look at or accept.
3) Run toward what you discover to be the true source of your problem. Fretting about it, suffering over it, or trying to avoid it doesn’t help. The adage is, you cannot drink, drug, eat, deny or sleep your way to mental health.
Over time, Laurie learned that following those steps and facing who she was and what she feared made it possible for her to better understand how she got to be who she was and the efficiently cope wit her life in spite of her perceived shortcomings and inadequacies. It worked for her and it can do the same for you.