How We Contribute to Our Own Suffering: The Foe from Within

Dylan Lawson, MHC (Limited Permit Holder) on Nov 25, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Can you think of something that’s happened in your life that has caused you a great amount of emotional pain? What if I told you that much of that suffering was domestic — coming from within? It is easy to dilute the pain we experienced to the direct cause of a rough happenstance; however, we are often one of the most significant sources of our own suffering when life goes in a difficult direction. Often, the pain and suffering we create is the result of a desperate, subconscious attempt to disconnect from reality.

Emotional Assault

Alarms blare loudly and red lights begin to flash frantically inside the brain. Something has triggered an insurmountable emotional response. Neurons fire rapidly in multiple areas of the brain, attempting to assess the damage. There doesn’t seem to be any apparent options that will resolve the problem and allow us to return to a state of tranquility. This is not a drill. Emergency personnel, constituted by the many tools we have learned along the way that help us cope with such emergencies, feverishly work to control the damage, but prove to be only marginally successful. Now what?

Defense Mechanisms to the Rescue

"Maybe if I ignore what’s happening, it will go away." When coping with a situation that has no apparent solution to return us to a sense of emotional normalcy and we feel like it’s hopeless, we have these handy little backup plans called defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are subconscious strategies that spring into action to protect us from unacceptable thoughts or feelings. They typically get to work when we are at a loss for how to deal with a given situation that is triggering distress and emotional suffering. They come in many forms, but one of the most common is denial. Denial is the active refusal to accept the reality of a situation. This might bring some temporary relief from your emotional response to what’s unfolding, but when it comes to things outside of our control, such as something that’s happened in the past or is currently happening, denial can end up adding to our suffering.

The Illusion of Control

Imagine you’re at a carnival and you see a really awesome Pikachu plushie being offered as a prize to whoever is able to toss a basketball into a basketball hoop. “This plushie would complete my collection!” you think to yourself as you eagerly walk to the counter of the tent. The woman operating the game smiles in your direction, but something about her facial expression felt almost sinister. She gladly accepts your money and hands you a ball. You feel confident as you toss the ball in a perfect arc; it’s right on target. You picture all of your plushies welcoming their new friend Pikachu with open, warm, fuzzy, inflexible arms (Paws? Hooves?). 

The unimaginable happens. The ball enters the rim, but it unexpectedly bounces up into the air, sending your dreams soaring overhead and forcing you to watch them plummet into the cold ground. “What just happened!?” you exclaim incredulously. “I rarely miss a free throw!” Witnesses to this gruesome event offer their sympathies and move on to check out the ferris wheel. It was clear to everybody that this game was rigged. The ball was just big enough to make it nearly impossible to make a shot into that normally-sized rim but just the right size to lure in enough Pikachu plushie-loving victims to buy the game operator some fancy new shoes. She wore them proudly, almost mockingly, to all of those who proved foolish enough to fall into her trap.

“The ball doesn’t fit! This game is not fair!” you remark angrily. The operator takes the very ball you tossed and places it gently into the hoop. It carefully navigates its way through to the other side and drops to the ground with a swish. You see that it’s possible but notice that there is little room for error as the ball has no extra clearance when entering the rim, making it nearly impossible to make a shot from where you’re standing. You stare longingly at the Pikachu plushie with rosey cheeks, begging for you to take it home so it can be with your other plushie friends, and avert your eyes back to the game operator. You fork over more cash, determining that this time you will make the basket. Boing! Once again, the ball goes flying out. Again! You methodically pay for game after game, feeling defeated as the basketball casualties pile up on the ground.

This game has been carefully concocted to give you a sliver of hope that you might win. While objectively true that you could indeed make a basket, the odds are stacked against your favor. When the stakes are high enough, it is much easier to hold on to the possibility of winning. However, in doing so, you are attempting to overcome a situation that is not in your control. As for the narration above, the size of the ball and the size of the hoop are not in your control, which makes it quite unlikely to make a basket. The prize you’re desperately trying to win can be compared to the strong desire for relief from distressing thoughts and feelings that occur when you have such an experience. At a certain point, when the circumstances begin to reveal that there is nothing you can do to resolve them, your brain is faced with a subconscious choice: experience your suffering head-on or protect yourself by convincing yourself that there’s still more you can do to alter reality. Often, our brains choose the latter because it is difficult to allow yourself to endure these feelings. You then become convinced that this situation is within your control when in reality, it’s not.

The illusion of control causes you to continue expending energy and effort into controlling the uncontrollable. You start to spin your wheels and travel nowhere. Then, you try harder, and the finite amount of energy you have begins to dwindle. All the while, you are finding no solution or relief from your pain. In fact, not only are you stuck in the looping emotional pain you were originally trying to avoid, you’re also creating an additional amount of pain on top of it due to the frustration and desperation that comes with attempting to control the uncontrollable.

Now What?

In arriving at this impasse where nothing seems to be working and it seems to only be getting worse, you are left with two choices. One is to continue on the path you’re on and add an additional, self-inflicted element to your suffering, and the other is to do the unthinkable of leaning into the very experience you’d like to escape. At first consideration, leaning into a painful experience and embracing it for what it is might feel counterintuitive. The reality is, though, that if you choose the other option, you aren’t actually escaping anything. The emotions are still there whether they’re obvious or underneath the surface. Attempting to control the uncontrollable is simply delaying the inevitable, which is that your feelings are going to affect you in one way, shape, or form despite your greatest efforts to avoid them. The only decision you can make to move forward is to radically accept what has happened and how it has affected you.

Radical Acceptance

The term "radical" is used deliberately as part of the name of this strategy. Radical acceptance is making a drastic decision to face the reality of a given situation utilizing the part of your brain used for logic and reason while curbing the emotionally charged thoughts working even harder to dispute it. You make this decision knowing it’s in your best interest. You make it with the understanding that, if you choose the alternative, you are adding to your suffering. 

This is a classic decision to choose long-term benefits over instant gratification that will inevitably amplify the suffering you endure. You are choosing to tell yourself, “I am going to acknowledge the pain I’m experiencing and lean into it so that it can run its course, which will provide me with authentic relief upon its passing.” The objective reality of how our brains work is that strong feelings will always run their course. 

Not sure how to take the more challenging path in the midst of all of this? It takes some planning and a little bit of practice in order to be able to do this when facing our biggest reactions. Because those feelings are so loud, it’s difficult to access the part of the brain that allows us to make a decision in our best interest. When this happens, deep breathing and other coping skills can go a long way. The goal is to soften the distress just enough to be able to employ the power of choice. Lean into it, and it will pass. Embrace the suffering, and it will pass. Let go to take control.

Dylan Lawson is a Mental Health Counselor in Brooklyn, NY.

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