We are made to flourish. Classically, that was understood as “happiness” or “blessedness.” In today’s society “happiness” like “love” is being redefined. From a Catholic perspective, happiness is experienced as we are becoming who God created us to be. Jesus even endured the cross for the joy set before him. Happiness is not the mere avoidance of suffering or the stimulation of certain brain centers. If we pursue the good, the true and the beautiful we will find happiness. If we pursue happiness, we won’t find anything but disappointment.
– Al Kresta
Our culture is obsessed with happiness. From a purely individual perspective, happiness seems to be the obvious and ultimate goal. Quite often, the second highest goal is avoiding pain or sadness. Pursue happiness, avoid pain: seems like common sense, right? Too bad its a really poor prescription for actual living.
In fact, if you asked me to describe the shortest path to a truly unhappy life, I would tell you simply to avoid pain or discomfort at all costs. That’s it. Thats your one-step, one sentence plan for the unhappy life.
There is a psychological term for this one step plan – experiential avoidance. This refers to any attempts to avoid aspects of our thoughts, sensations, emotions, or experiences that are unpleasant or painful. This isn’t uncommon. In fact I would be surprised to meet anyone who has not avoided uncomfortable parts of their experience. Yet the more avoidance we choose, the worse off we typically are.
By way of illustration, here are some examples from my own life. The realities of graduate school sometimes leave me feeling exhausted, frustrated and overwhelmed. I have (frequently) been known to avoid those feelings by watching highlights on ESPN. Highlights are enjoyable, but once I stop the situation is no better and I add guilt to my list of negative feelings.
Sometimes parenting my children leaves me sad or disappointed when it means I cannot pursue activities I prefer for myself. Rather than be honest about those feelings, I have a tendency to take out my phone and start checking messages, facebook, or the latest statistics on gas prices in Idaho. Not only am I not doing what I want, but I am also not present to my kids. Usually this results in more conflict between them, less following of my directions, and higher frustration all around. We all lose out.
Avoiding causes psychological distress
Take this kind of avoidance a bit farther, make it an inflexible habit, and you have a common component of many mental illnesses, particularly anxiety disorders. Someone with a social phobia may find the uncertainty and risk of meeting new people to be quite uncomfortable. However, the more that they avoid social interaction, the more feared it becomes. As life is contorted to avoid feared interactions, more and more experiences become associated with fear and pain, then life must be further shrunk to avoid those feelings.
Similarly, avoidance plays a large role in individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Most people encounter a traumatic stressor at some point in life, but not all of those are diagnosed with PTSD. For some people, they get stuck when they continuously try to avoid things they associate with their traumatic stressor. This might mean controlling painful thoughts, avoiding certain places or people, finding ways of suppressing particular emotions. It can also look like trying to control life in order to avoid the feeling of being out of control that they had during the trauma. The problem is that as long as the feared thoughts, situations, and feelings are avoided, one cannot learn that there is nothing to fear in them. The research on this is plentiful, so here is an example study for you, from Chad Shenk at Penn State:
“Shenk and his research team found that adolescent girls who experienced maltreatment in the past year and were willing to talk about their painful experiences and their thoughts and emotions, were less likely to have PTSD symptoms one year later. Those who tried to avoid painful thoughts and emotions were significantly more likely to exhibit PTSD symptoms down the road.”
At the far extreme, suicide could be conceptualized as experiential avoidance taken to the extreme. Life is experienced as intensely painful, and the individual chooses the most intense form of avoidance available: avoiding ALL experience. This may be extreme, but it is not as rare as you might think: According to a large nationwide survey, 4.6% of people in the U.S. have attempted suicide and 13.5% have considered it.
For all of us, the more emphasis we place on avoiding what we do not like, the more often we will find it. And when you are consistently confronted by something you are unwilling to experience, the more of your life you must spend avoiding it. Yes, avoidance is a sure road to misery.
And the Catholics said “Amen”
This should make sense from a Catholic worldview. After all, we live in a fallen world that is not supposed to be all roses. The value of sacrifice is part of our birthright. Our most powerful religious symbol is the cross, an instrument of intense suffering. We join ourselves to Christ on the cross, and we also rise with Him. This is the rhythm of the Catholic life: passion, death, resurrection. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” – 2 Cor 1:5
We could look at it another way too. I am sure you have heard that “Each moment is a gift from God.” How much do you believe this? Are even the unpleasant moments gifts from God? Could they be opportunities to practice receptiveness, willingness, openness to what is given? Might they be small doses, intended over time to help inoculate us against the deadly beliefs that we can and should get what we want and only what we want? Paul certainly had his thoughts on the matter: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” – 2 Cor. 4:17-18.
To reject all experience of suffering or discomfort, from a Catholic perspective, is not only the road to unhappiness, but cuts us off from the narrative of salvation. Again, this does not mean that we need to seek it, or that we should not work towards eliminating the causes of pain in our world. But avoiding the pain that we do experience is in some way a “no” to God as well as to a part of our selves.
Though experiential avoidance seems obviously problematic on paper, it is continually pulling at us in real life. To quote our Penn State researcher: “Avoidance is something we all do.” Whether your perspective is that evolution predisposed us to avoid pain as a signal of danger, or you see these as effects of the Fall and original sin, we frequently feel the tug to avoid pain and discomfort.
As a therapist, I tell clients that the way out of a phobia is to approach the feared experience and tolerate the unpleasantness. The more the experience is allowed and entered into, the less fear has control. In line with what our Penn State researcher said, I tell individuals with PTSD that examining their thoughts, allowing their feelings, and being open to even painful experiences is the path to a less constricted future. I think those suggestions are helpful for anyone, but in case you wanted something more specific, here are some suggestions.
- Accept that life can be painful. Research by Amanda Shallcross and others reported that “accepting negative experiences may protect individuals from experiencing negative affect and from developing depressive symptoms.” Negative experiences are part of life. You don’t have to like it, but the first step is acknowledging it.
- Face the (emotional) pain. This is where a shift starts. Instead of seeing painful feelings as something to get rid of, you can view them as messages, with something to tell you. This viewpoint would lead you to approach them, attend to them, and also let them go when the message has been delivered.
- Make space for the pain. Even when you face it, there is hurt. How can it have a place in your life? What helps you to hold it? Some people find that intentionally relaxing their muscles and breathing into pain helps. Others find that creating times in their week just for reflection and prayer gives them a space to accept pain. By sharing our experience of pain, others can sometimes help us to hold it.
- Cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is the tool that helps us be aware of our experience in each moment. When we lack the ability to notice when pain presents itself, or when we feel like avoiding, we are already disconnecting from our experiences.
- “Offer it up.” This was a favorite mantra of my mother’s when I was upset by something. Now I realize that this helped me to see discomfort as something that not only should be tolerated, but that could have a purpose. As God turned the suffering of the Cross into our salvation, He can similarly work something beautiful out of our discomfort. By accepting our pain and offering it to Him, we allow it to be transformed into grace for us and others.
- Ask God for His companionship. As my fellow PsychedCatholic Matt wrote last week, we know that Christ waits for us in our places of suffering and solitude. Ask Him to walk with you as you approach the difficult places in your life.
- Treat yourself with compassion. Even when you want to be accepting and willing, you may catch yourself practicing avoidance. It’s ok. We all struggle. I love this quote from Jean Vanier: “Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness.” Notice your disappointment, and be compassionate by accepting that feeling too.