If we get too close to a hot stove or an open fire, our body naturally recoils from the heat to protect itself. If we trip and fall on the street, or are about to crash our car, our bodies will brace for impact in an attempt to protect the body and avoid pain. It is a natural instinct, if something hurts, we want to get away from it.
The interesting thing is that most of us show this reaction not only to imminent physically threatening events, but also to imaginary (future or past) events.
Just a small experiment… Close your eyes and picture yourself standing on top of a flight of stairs. Let’s make it a nice and hard polished marble staircase. Feel the unyielding solidity of the stone under your feet. Now… feel your body leaning forward, until you lose your balance and start falling headfirst down the stairs. In slow motion you see the sharp edges coming closer and closer. You know there is nothing you can do to stop the fall. You are microseconds away from crashing your body into the hard stone… Full impact…NOW!
I do not know about you, but if I feel or sense my way through this sequence, I involuntarily start contracting different parts of my body – my stomach muscles contract, my shoulders tense up, my neck and jaw muscles become stiff – all in an attempt to avoid the (imagined!) impact. In my physical ‘reality’ NOTHING is going on, yet, my mind is unable to tell the difference, with the result that my body reacts the same way as if I were actually falling down a flight of stairs.
Fascinating, isn’t it? As you can imagine, this holds true not only for physical pain, but also for different kinds of (imagined or ‘real’) emotional pain.
The words, ‘I hate you!’ will – if uttered with the frequency of pure anger and hatred appropriate for such a statement – create a bodily sensation in anyone receiving it. It is simple physics. Intuitively this is perhaps easiest to understand in relation to sound. In the same way that you can feel the beat of a good bass rhythm in your body if you turn up the volume enough, music, words and other sounds also resonate in your bodily tissues (whether you are actively aware of it or not).
Not only will the (audible) sound of the words move through your body though, the emotion will as well. It is all energy. The only difference is in the frequency (sound) of the emotion, which is higher, and outside our range of hearing.
And that is all! … Or rather, this is how it could be:
Hateful words are uttered. They move through our body. We feel them. We move on.
However, for most of us, the story does not end there. Because we resist.
Most people, including me, do not truly want to feel negative emotions. Negative emotions feel uncomfortable. They feel bad. They feel painful. Or rather, most people associate negative emotions with pain, suffering and feeling bad in their mind. Just as with the example of the staircase, the image of pain in our heads (whether ‘real’ or imagined) causes our bodies to contract. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Nonetheless, contraction never feels good (just try contracting all your muscles and then let them go all at once - the relaxed state sure feels better).
And most people just want to feel good. What is wrong with that? Well, nothing, of course… given a choice everyone would choose to feel good over bad. The problem is: life simply does not always feel good. Yet, most of us are trapped by elaborate strategies to avoid feeling pain and resist whatever does not feel good.
There are many different systems that describe these walls. One of my favourites is the enneagram. This system recognizes nine different defence mechanisms and strategies for avoiding pain.
… There’s a silver lining to every cloud. Let’s do something fun instead (7).
… Others may have issues, but I certainly do not. I am in control (8).
… I do not really need anything anyway. Let me help you instead (2).
… I need to know more about this (5).
… I need to adjust my response or fix this to make it perfect (1).
… There’s something wrong with me, I am not worthy of a life without pain (4).
… It is your fault. I need structure to feel safe (6).
… Failure is not an option. I can turn this into a success (3).
… If everything would be peaceful all would be well (9).
My preferred strategy is to tune out. I will just disappear into my head (either going into dream mode (9) or analyzing my feelings(5)) or get out of my body completely (9). Because if I am not really here, I cannot feel pain (nor any real happiness, but that’s just the price that has to be paid). Another favourite of mine is to comfort and numb myself with food, chocolate, tv… or anything else that will give me a sense of ‘fullness’ (9) – so I do not have to actually feel the emptiness inside me.
This has worked reasonably well for the past 40 years (note that the words ‘reasonably well’ are yet another 9-strategy: ‘I’m fine… it’s OK as it is…’). Do not get me wrong – defence mechanisms are a necessary part of the life of most children. And yes, a healthy sense of fear is a handy thing to have when you are standing on the edge of the abyss. But… I am 40 years old. Do I really still need all these strategies??? And another question: what is it costing me to keep up these defences?
During the past few months I have had quite a ride with regard to my (ego)defences. Although I have worked with the enneagram for a decade or so, it seems I never truly believed that it was possible to transcend these mechanisms. After all, we need some kind of ego in order to interact with other people. Even with people who are clearly higher up the spiritual ladder (guru’s and such), different enneatypical behaviours are still recognizable.
Obviously, I still have not transcended all my mechanisms. I feel things changing, though, more than ever before. Two keys for actually wanting to change things was 1) to fully see and accept that my defence mechanisms are still very much active at a subconscious level and 2) the realization how much my defences are costing me.
In my case, tuning out and numbing myself in order not to fully feel has been the biggest energy thief of my life. I thought I just had low energy reserves and needed to be really careful with my body, my activities, how I spent my time and with whom I interacted. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the more I actively engage in my life, the more I exercise, the more I connect with the anger I feel inside – the more energy I get, the more alive I feel and the more free I feel to be myself. And paradoxically – the more I allow negative emotions and pain in my system by staying present regardless of what presents itself – the better I feel.
So, take another look at the list of pain avoidance strategies above. You just might recognize yourself in one or two of these typical behaviours… and ask yourself how much your resistance and defences against pain are costing you?
Is it a price worth paying?