Quite a few years ago now, I was a student in the University of Life, busy getting my Masters Degree in Pain Avoidance, when I became suddenly and inexplicably interested in all things Carl Jung. It all hung on one comment that I found myself reading and re-reading about a zillion times.
'There is no substitute for legitimate suffering'. Well, that's a rough translation anyway.
I remember at the time thinking it was the most depressing thing I'd ever read, apart from my school maths report that is, but as I came to understand what that meant, something about it resonated and took root deep within. But at this time, suffering my aversions to my past, being called to face my demons square on obviously had me running a mile in the opposite direction.
My subconscious was fully in the driving seat and being that it runs 97% of the show and has the top job of keeping us safe, there was no way I was looking at that shizzle. It doesn’t matter to the subconscious how we achieve protection from emotional pain, only that we achieve it, even if our methods of avoidance are ultimately, and sometimes irreversibly, damaging to us, whether you’re injecting yourself with heroin, gambling away thousands of pounds, having sex with umpteen strangers or starving/overeating/purging, these are all strategies for pain avoidance.
My strategies, as with most that are continued over a sustained period, were slowly killing me. Keeping the monster from under my bed was destroying me, eroding whoever me was, in fact the monster had decided to accompany me every waking moment.
Time to kill it or it would kill me.
BUT first I needed a ‘toolkit’.
Discovering what was a set of tailored strategies and systematically applying it made it safe to start looking at the events in my life that had programmed my emotional software.
Recently, as I reluctantly ticked the lockdown task box of filing and clearing space, I came across, at first glance, what appeared to be a lovely handwritten note on Winnie the Pooh paper from 1981. I was 11.
The contents of the letter were full disclosure of the obsessions driving me, my latest diet, my current weight, and a meticulous list of that day’s food consumed, all dismissed gaily with the parting ‘Must be flying!’. So, 39 years ago, there it was – my first and probably most abused method of pain avoidance. Food. It’s a biggie, for me and universally increasingly so for many adults and children. In the US eating disorders are second only to opioid overdose (yep, yet another strategy to dodge feeling pain) with one death every 52 minutes.
So began my journey to expertise in this field. I didn’t have just one type of eating disorder; I did the full 12 rounds with ALL of them. Within this framework I weaved some alcohol abuse, but I spent far too long hugging toilet bowls in bathrooms at random parties listening to the shouts of disgruntled, desperate for a wee party goers, for this to be enjoyable or efficient. Then, I moved swiftly into a sojourn with drugs, then free-fell back to food again. This time it was serious and included hospitals. Then shopping addictions, crippling credit card debt, over exercising, all beautifully supported by some rollercoaster relationships with avoidant men.
Told you I had a master’s degree in Pain avoidance.
So, the day arrives. I know it’s time. Just me, my toolbox, and the mantra, EVOLVE OR REPEAT.
By this time, I have a family. Repeat just doesn’t feel like an option.
So, I start to unpack this suitcase and look at its contents.
Bizarrely and completely unexpectedly I started to enjoy it. Carl Jung was right, there really is no substitute for legitimate suffering! However, far from being depressing, it was a revelation! I realised that in avoiding my pain, I had created SO MUCH MORE PAIN. It was like I was snipping wire after wire of a time bomb, using this toolbox to gradually rewire my neural circuitry to one that was safe. At times there were things in that suitcase that were golden. Learnings and blessings. For example, my addiction to exercise? Well, that became a beautiful and nurturing career through which I’ve forged many important relationships that I still enjoy today.
My learning through therapies also inspired me to make career choices in the therapeutic profession, and now I guide others to look at what curiosities they may have lurking in their own suitcases.
What's in yours?