Pain: Healing, Growth, and Awareness
Emotional pain often brings people into therapy and/or recovery. This may be the pain of depression, another relationship ending badly, or finally hitting rock bottom. Addiction, in a very real sense, is used to not feel pain. However, in the end, addiction creates more pain than it avoids. Entering therapy or recovery is often seen as a path towards no longer feeling this pain. However, true healing and recovery asks us to feel and accept our pain. It is through the experience of feeling our pain that we receive many of the gifts that support our healing and recovery.
Dave and his experience in healing and recovery is an example of how feeling pain is an important part of the healing journey. Dave sits in my office with tears sliding down his cheeks. We are exploring his childhood experiences and the reality of what growing up in his family was like. Through his quivering lips, he spits out "I've been working on this for so long. You start talking about my family and I'm back here in all this pain again. Why am I stuck?"
Feeling pain, especially pain connected to traumatic events from childhood, is often interpreted as "being stuck." After all, it is easy to believe that "if I was not stuck, I would not be feeling this pain." This is not the case! Pain is a normal and healthy human emotion. Pain is an emotion to be felt and understood. Pain is an emotion that helps to guide us in life. Pain is an emotion that has gifts to offer us: healing, growth, and awareness. Feeling pain does not mean we are stuck. Quite the contrary, it often means we are doing good healing work.
Dave originally came into my office struggling with addiction. He held tightly to his outward persona which he unconsciously used to hide his pain, shame, and core self from the rest of the world. On the surface, Dave's family of origin looked wonderful, nurturing, and loving. Dave believed that whatever struggles he had were surely about him and his own "defectiveness." He projected to the world the image of someone who had moved through life with seeming ease but about every 6 months or so, Dave would be overwhelmed by pain and spend hours crying to himself, unsure of where this pain was coming from. At the same time, his addiction was gaining momentum and the unmanageability of his life was becoming more apparent.
In therapy, we initially addressed Dave's addiction and helped him to create a support community. Then, we dug into Dave's history and the emotional pain that drives his addiction. Seeing his family and childhood experiences in the light of reality was not easy for Dave. Slowly, he started to see his parents as loving but wounded. He began to understand how their wounds impacted him and limited what they were able to offer to him. Dave started to see that he was not "defective" but wounded.
Dave initially dropped into his pain around his father. Over a number of tear-filled sessions, he explored, accepted, confronted, and started holding boundaries around his father's wounds. Dave had finally dropped into his pain and allowed it to guide him into his healing and growth related to his father. Issues related to his father still come up. At times, Dave feels accepting of his past and at others he feels anger. However, the awareness that Dave received by opening up to his pain and accepting the realty of his father set this process in motion and continues to solidify his recovery.
Dave still feels pain but it no longer seeps out every 6 months in overwhelming bursts. His pain, as opposed to signaling he is stuck, is a signal that he is healing. Dave's pain guided him to uncover and recognize the shame he had been carrying from his father. Feeling his pain and allowing it to guide him in his work has allowed Dave to be less reactive to his father as well as accept his father for who he truly is, a wounded man who loves Dave but is often unable or does not know how to show this. When pain comes up for Dave around his father, he is able to embrace whatever new understanding about his father and their relationship is being offered to him. He no longer stuffs his pain and acts out his addiction to avoid it; Dave now feels his pain, observes his reactions, and uses the tools he has learned in recovery to take care of himself.
Pia Mellody talks about the gifts we receive from all emotions, even the uncomfortable ones. Dave is experiencing and taking advantage of the gifts we receive from pain: healing, growth, and awareness. This process started for Dave when he started to FEEL his pain. Previously he had used his addiction to numb his pain, lived in a fantasy to pretend his pain did not exist, and stuffed his pain by putting on a "good face" to show the world. Now that he is in recovery, lives in reality, and allows himself to be known, he is healing, growing, and learning.
Pain guides us in our journey and helps us in our own self care. It gives us information about ourselves, our situation, and the people around us. Pain lets us know where our wounds are, when the wounds of others are being acted out on us, and helps us to slow down and truly understand the situation. When we stuff our pain or pretend it is not there, we unnecessarily handicap ourselves. Stuffing our pain is like walking around in a pitch black room with our arms at our sides. The chances of us walking face first into the wall greatly increase! With our arms out, we are better able to find the walls without hurting ourselves. Successfully finding the walls allows us to get an understanding of the room's dimensions or, in others words, the reality of the room. With our arms out, we can adjust to the situation. The same is true of our pain. As we feel our pain, we get an understanding of the reality of the situation and can adjust to it.
As we feel the wall, we stop walking to save our nose from a damaging encounter. Similarly, feeling our pain allows us to adjust our own interactions and self care. We may put up our boundaries. We may recognize the reality of another person and shift what we share and/or take in from them. We may leave the situation.
With our arms out, we naturally move more cautiously, keeping ourselves more balanced even though we haven't felt anything. As we open ourselves to pain, a similar experience happens. Even when we do not feel pain, we are more aware of how we take care of ourselves. Whether this is meditation, exercise, journaling, phone calls, meetings, therapy, or rigorous honesty, we keep our self care regiment in place more easily when we are open to feeling our pain. And when pain emerges to help us see more clearly ourselves or our situation, we can fall back on this self care regiment and add to it as necessary. There are many gifts we receive when we are willing to feel our pain.
As Dave sits in my office, feeling his pain, and wondering why he is stuck, I look at him with caring and love. With all the compassion I can offer I say, "You are not stuck. You are more open to your feelings, especially pain. And you are taking advantage of the healing, growth, and awareness that pain gives you. You have used all of this in exploring and learning about your relationship with your dad. But today we are exploring the more subtle wounds you have from your mother. You have opened yourself to this process before and you have developed tools to help you to do this type of work. I'll be here with you as your pain allows you to heal, grow, and understand your relationship with your mother. This pain is your guide - embrace it!"
Tim Stein is a Marriage and Family Therapist based in Santa Rosa, CA. His specialties include sex addiction and developmental trauma. Tim works with individuals, couples, families, and groups as well as providing presentations in the areas of sexual addiction, relationships, and developmental trauma.
The Meadows co-sponsors the 22nd Annual International Trauma Conference in Boston, May 18-22, 2011
Conference Director and Senior Fellow at The Meadows, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, has been bringing together leaders in the field of neuroscience for this dynamic conference for the past 22 years. Last week presenters Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, Julian D. Ford, PhD, Richard C. Schwartz, PhD, Judith L. Herman, MD, Adele Diamond, PhD, FRSC and many others, as well as 700 attendees came together in Boston to examine cutting-edge treatment interventions for various trauma-based symptoms. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, closed the conference with a presentation on Mindfulness, Healing, and Transformation.
The Meadows has been a proud sponsor of the International Trauma Conference and the Trauma Center in Boston, Massachusetts, for the past six years. We join Dr. van der Kolk's team in supporting a cutting-edge program of research and mind-body approaches to help trauma survivors recover with empowerment and dignity.
On Wednesday, June 1, 2011, Michelle Mays, LPC, CSAT will be presenting on Hope and Healing for Partners of Sex Addicts. Her lecture will discuss how the treatment community is debating whether partners are best treated with a trauma model or addiction model. She will explain how both models provide a lens through which to view the emotional, spiritual, and behavioral issues of partners of sex addicts. Blending both models brings a comprehensive picture of these issues into focus, enabling a clear delineation of phases of treatment and optimal treatment strategies for each phase. Seminar attendees will learn the strengths and weaknesses of each model, as well as a blended model that can be used to treat a growing population. Michelle will outline the phases of treatment and identify corresponding intervention strategies. The lecture will take place on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 from 7:00 pm-8:30 pm at the Unity of Fairfax, 2854 Hunter Mill Road, Oakton, Virginia, 22124. For more information, 866-922-0952 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Free Lecture Series - Phoenix, Arizona - May 23, 2011
Charlie Atkinson, MA, MSW, LCSW will be speaking at The Meadows Free Lecture on May 23, 2011, at 7pm at the Scottsdale Chaparral Christian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mr. Atkinson is a well known therapist who has been in private practice in the valley for many years, specializing in the treatment of trauma and anxiety disorders. Mr. Atkinson will present the topic of Understanding and Healing Your Pool of Pain. During his presentation, Mr. Atkinson will discuss the development of trauma as well as the grief process. He will present effective methods of working through pain and grief. Through this healing process, an individual will be able to find a sense of wholeness within themselves.
Contact The Meadows Arizona Community Relations Representative, Meagan Foxx, LPC, LISAC at 602-531-5320 for more information. No registration required. We look forward to seeing you.
My therapist told me most sex addicts have multiple addictions. Is that true?
I have never met a sex addict addicted only to sex. Typically, three to six addictions interact with one another. Most individuals who come into treatment don't realize this. Often they are in denial about the scope of their destructive behaviors, minimizing and rationalizing their patterns. Often they construct and normalize complex lives, allowing one addiction to flow seamlessly into the other.
Professionals who work 80 or 90 hours a week may feel they have earned a weekend of binge drinking and sex. They tell themselves they are not workaholics, because they can take time off to "relax." Similarly, some individuals who work excessive hours take vacations only to pack every minute with activities: scuba diving all day; a volleyball tournament before dinner; an expensive meal; and clubbing with alcohol, drugs, and sex until 3 a.m. - only to start the cycle over the next morning."I don't have a work addiction. I can relax and take time off," they tell themselves. What they don't realize is that they are addicted to intensity. They look for the high or emotional escape that allows them to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
All addicts are "shame-based," meaning they were given negative messages about themselves. A child can experience abuse that is overt (recognizable abuse that can be verbal, physical, or sexual) or covert (in which the child is not typically aware of the subconscious messages). Covert abuse is typically couched in the expectations that parents have for their children. "If I am a good athlete, my parents will be proud." "If I am homecoming queen, I will be popular."
These children believe they must perform in order to have value. Such intensely goal-oriented thinking teaches - and ultimately allows the children to avoid - feelings of shame. This is when patterns of addiction begin.
This need for external gratification sets up the children to have low internal esteem. They feel they are not enough; they are worthless and unlovable... unless they produce. Winning trophies and awards will bring attention and a sense of value. Before they are aware of it, these people establish patterns that allow emotional escape.
After cheating on his wife, the sex addict feels no guilt or remorse about his betrayals, but stops at the local pizza parlor and eats a whole pie. Still numb, he spends several hours gaming on the computer - yet another way to avoid the emotions that lie below the surface. His patterns satiate his pain and shame.
Food addicts may gain weight so they don't have to be sexual. "I don't need sex," they tell themselves. "I am strong and independent."
The after-work drink with coworkers may turn into a one-night stand. "I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been drunk."
In treatment, individuals look at the interactive patterns in their lives, the seamless processes they unconsciously devise in order to survive painful feelings. The healing process often overwhelms the individual, because the addict often believes his or her own lies: "I don't really have problem with..." In reality, they have spent a lifetime jumping from one addictive behavior to the next on a roller coaster; the costly consequences can impact their livelihood, relationships, health, and finances - and can even bring death.