Addictions, distractions, attachments…we all have them. Rather than facing our fear, our shame, our pain, our guilt, our grief, our anger, our despair or our helplessness we reach for Facebook or a piece of cake or a cigarette or a beer. Or we shop, watch TV, sleep. Even seemingly good habits like exercising or cleaning can become obsessive distractions.
How do we get out of this common yet destructive way of soothing ourselves? For many of us, it ends up a torturous loop. We feel bad about ourselves or don’t want to feel something and so we go to one of our favourite distractions for comfort. Then when the TV program is over or the hangover sets in we can notice that the anxiety, negativity irritability, restlessness or whatever feeling was there before starts to set in again. Then we often end up feeling worse about ourselves because deep down we know we are only skirting the real problem. The cycle begins again.
For me, two of the ways I avoid are through not eating enough or buying too much. Both only offer very temporary relief and then I will sometimes feel bad for not making wiser choices. But recently I have noticed a shift happening in myself–a way out of the loop. Instead of beating myself up for buying those extra two pairs of leggings that I didn’t need, or going to bed knowing that I was still a little hungry, I first bring compassion and appreciation to myself. I realize that these are my coping strategies. And oh, how wonderfully well they have worked in the past! They have protected me from emotions and truths I wasn’t yet ready to encounter. What a strange miracle our mind is! Secondly, I look more deeply to see what is underneath. What was I running away from? What inner suffering was I ignoring?
When we see our friend or loved one in a difficult or painful situation, we generally try to comfort them or give them words of encouragement or understanding. When it comes to ourselves, though, some of us have not been taught to be so kind. So we tell ourselves to be tougher, or to stop feeling sorry for ourselves or to be more disciplined. For example, we may fear making mistakes and failing and therefore instead of taking small steps toward our goals, we distract ourselves with Youtube videos. Then, after we realize we have wasted time, we get mad at ourselves for being lazy. Of course, by labelling ourselves as lazy we will be back at the beginning, thinking that we will never be a success. The loop continues.
Compassion, forgiveness, deep inner looking with objectivity and curiosity…and humour–these are the keys to making change. We wake ourselves up from the trance and go–WHOA! What’s really going on here? What am I trying to protect myself from? What emotions seem too overwhelming to handle?
I suppose that’s what most of our strategies are: ways to cover ourselves up, to pad ourselves from harsh realities, to hide from difficult emotions. But we can move away from these dysfunctional strategies and begin to self-soothe in ways that are healthy and helpful. We can take some time for reflection, we can meditate, we can talk to a friend about our situation, we can see a counsellor, we can make ourselves a nice meal, we can have a warm bath, we can take some deep breaths, we can go for a walk, we can spend time in nature, we can share our truth, we can express ourselves through art or music. There are plenty of options that will serve you much better than watching Netflix!
Now I am not against entertainment or shopping or indulging in a desert now and then–you are the one who will know if it is a pleasurable activity that really brings you joy or an avoidance that merely pushes real feelings aside. Your heart will tell you.
As I was thinking about the topic of this post, I recalled a Tara Brach video I had watched the other night. She was talking about a similar loop. This loop was our reactivity to others. In a similar way, she described how the cycle goes: we feel bad about ourselves and so we protect, pretend or defend. Then, due to our behaviour, we get an aversive reaction from the other person which in turn confirms our belief that there is something wrong with us. For instance, say we feel insecure and we fear someone might leave us. This belief could cause us to act controlling and to try to dominate this other person. Most likely, the person on the receiving end will feel uncomfortable and frustrated and then indeed, may end up threatening to leave. Thus, our feeling of insecurity is reinforced.
Breaking out of this cycle requires awareness. Brach suggests that we ask ourselves–What am I wanting? What am I fearing? She tells us to be present with what is; to notice what we are feeling in our bodies. Brach also encourages us to reflect regularly on our deepest intentions. That is, what is most important to me? What really matters? Perhaps it is presence, love, truth, openness, kindness, connection, listening deeply, seeking to understand, seeing the basic goodness in others. If our intention is to be kind and understand, then when we perceive that someone is speaking rudely to us, we can respond compassionately (both to ourselves and the other person) and skilfully rather than getting defensive and attacking back or pretending that it doesn’t bother us. Perhaps if we pause, we will have an insight as to what is really going on beneath the surface.
By getting to the core of our defences, we can get out of these negative loop patterns that happen in relationships. By showing our vulnerability, we can start to let down the armour around our hearts and find true intimacy with another.
Whether we are protecting ourselves from seeing our own fears, shame and pain or protecting ourselves from others seeing our fears, shame and pain, we end up feeling disconnected and alone. It is when we have the courage to look at ourselves that we will feel comfortable in our own skins and feel connected to our heart. And it is when we have the openness to allow others to look at us that we will be able to be comfortable being seen and being intimate with others.