Updated: May 12, 2022
By Allison Christopher, PsyD
August 24, 2021
How often have you felt a feeling creeping up and thought to yourself, “Oh man, not this!” Maybe you’re anticipating an uncomfortable encounter, or rehashing a time when you put your foot in your mouth. Or maybe you notice that things are going well, but you have a sinking feeling that the other shoe is about to drop and the good times are coming to an end.
When we notice these uncomfortable feelings creeping in, whether they are based in anxiety or depression, past or future, reality or imagination, our natural drive as humans is to escape the discomfort. We naturally want to avoid pain. Why would we want to subject ourselves to pain?
We try all sorts of ways to avoid experiencing pain and discomfort. We “bottle it up,” live in a state of denial, or try to numb these feelings with substances, food, relationships, or other activities. Sometimes, we even try to overcompensate by adopting an extreme view of positivity (“toxic positivity”) that doesn’t allow room for flexibility or human experience of emotions. Believe it or not, even some well-respected therapy techniques can also be put in this category, of ways in which we try to escape discomfort.
Paradoxically, when we attempt to escape pain and discomfort, we tell ourselves two things: 1- the pain and discomfort is TOO BIG AND TOO SCARY and 2- we are INCAPABLE of handling it. Once these thoughts are in play, we naturally begin to believe them. Every time we avoid an uncomfortable feeling, we reinforce these beliefs and thus we fuel the exact thing that is causing the discomfort. And, in turn, we FEEL MORE PAIN! So, if you’re following, avoiding pain = more pain.
One benefit of therapy is the actual experience of sitting in your discomfort. The nature of therapy itself requires that you choose to explore uncomfortable feelings. By engaging in therapy, you are actively working to undo the previous equation (avoiding pain = more pain). You are teaching yourself that 1- the pain and discomfort is yucky but it’s not unmanageable and 2- you are capable of handling it. Every time you choose to face your pain and don’t escape, you’re reinforcing a new, healthy pattern. And, in time, the pain will actually reduce! Wild, I know.