CHANGE: SOFTENING THE PAIN when the body says don't BY: Troy Murphy | May 2016
Acknowledging character flaws triggers fear. The fear we aren’t good enough. We refuse to acknowledge flaws with a subconscious purpose. Recognition shakes security. We want to feel secure, knowing we are relevant; we can overcome any challenge. We want acceptance—likable and supported. Information that shakes security discomforts, reminding of vulnerability; we reject insightful aha moments because they expose weakness. By tucking the enlightening self-knowledge into the tidy corners of the subconscious, security is maintained.
Defensive processes are not malfunctions. These processes bolster security, giving self-confidence, keeping our engine firing. When we blame a hurtful relationship on a bad partner, we eagerly begin a new relationship without worrying about our flawed skills at connecting—it was my partner’s fault. Children are especially susceptible to defensive thinking. The mechanisms serve important functions for growing young minds. Unfortunately, many of these childhood protections continue long after the original purpose. Unnecessary protective mechanisms slow growth, limit intimacy, and prevent learning.
While we can’t handle all the truth, our growth depends on small doses, continually correcting deceptions and realigning us with reality.
Exposing egos to painful self-knowledge requires courage; abandoning engrained responses is a daunting task. The emotion-behavior chain occurs unconsciously. The unconscious implementation of defensive mechanisms is essential for the mechanism to provide effective escape, so we utilize thought patterns we don’t recognize; they act on their own softening reality. We don’t consciously choose to be jealous, hurt, frightful, or shamed; we just are. During previous experiences, these reactions shielded us, motivating behavioral responses to combat difficulty. Experience can easily out match us, leaving us feeling depressed and helpless. Nothing gets accomplished when in unproductive states of mind; our mind responds to lighten overwhelming experience and keep us functioning. Sometime these automatic responses get out of whack, magnifying small matters and ignoring important matters. When this happens our emotions and mind responses complicate our lives, leading us down destructive paths, and confusing memories. The mess perplexes future choices because the chaotic connections with the misunderstood past.
As humans, we are imperfect. There’s no perfect approach to experience. We never fulfill every goal, hope and intention. Our predictions of the future will be amiss. Understanding the complexity of cause and effect exceeds our mental capabilities; we must simplify. We survive with our predictions even though we operate with only fractured information, filtered and sanitized for understanding. Success at relationships, education, professional life, and health are intricate constructions of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviors. But success isn’t simply internal controls; Outside forces also disrupt success, even when actions were appropriate. We have power to direct our lives but not perfectly—not completely. The right action doesn’t always end with the desired consequence. We can do all the right things and still occasionally fail. Or conversely, we can do all the wrong things and somehow still succeed. The vulnerability to outside factors is unsettling. We gobble up information promising greatness (positivity movement) and then are puzzled when life fails to abundantly bless. Life gives and life takes away.
I am not arguing that life is completely random—it is not. There is order and reason behind everything. We have a great deal of control over many contributing factors of success. For example, if we eat right, exercise and limit stress, we are more likely to be healthy. If we are kind, forgiving, and empathetic we are more likely to have healthy relationships. The factors are just complex. We don’t know all the contributing factors therefore we can’t accurately predict or perfectly control outcomes. We are vulnerable to the unknown factors.
Vulnerability shakes personal security. Our thoughts work to diminish the sense of unknown, giving weight to control while ignoring unknowns. We construct a framework of beliefs that increases perceptual control over the environment, lessoning the sense of vulnerability, even when our control is only marginal. For example, if I believe drinking a glass of water every two hours prevents cancer, the fear of cancer diminishes. I am still vulnerable to the disease; I just don’t think I am. Therefore, I experience increased security through a faulty belief.
When childhood is filled with unpredictable physical and emotional abuse, the child takes responsibility for the abuse, seeing themselves as bad, deserving the punishment. Their actions have painful consequences. A young child fails to grasp the complexity of causes; they lack context to see the parent’s role, history, and impulses. The connection between the abuse and the triggering behavior is all the child sees. “I acted bad and was punished; if I behave better in the future, I will not be punished.” With wisdom, we realize the abuse depends more on the parent’s emotional stability than the child’s behavior. The child’s fear of punishment is legitimate; they live in an unpredictable world where severe punishments are a real possibility. The child, believing they are solely responsible, has a tremendous drive to appear perfect to avoid hurt.
We all (whether raised in a chaos or order) respond to personal imperfection with some degree of defensiveness. Vulnerability is scary. Shame is painful. But the frightening feelings of personal limitations can’t be entirely avoided; we are limited, control of the future belongs to many—not one. The anxiety of limited control can be gracefully and productively managed. Our mature mind—capable of thought--must remind our reactionary mind that imperfection doesn’t equate to failure. Our greatest chance of success relies on accurate assessment of challenges coupled with accurate assessment of personal resources. A boxer’s underestimation of an opponent and over estimation of himself boosts confidence but once inside the ring his faulty confidence is exposed to reality. Even with imperfections, we still can enjoy healthy relationships, successful careers, and obtain many of our hopes and dreams. Growth requires recognition of faults and the accompanying discomfort. Our knowledge prevents mismatches in the ring protecting our face from getting smashed in by a superior opponent. Discomfort is necessary, reminding to be cautious, to keep the challenges within manageable portions. For optimum growth, we can’t be emotionally overwhelmed or completely comfortably.
We can acknowledge personal weakness, manage the discomfort, and then skillfully make changes that improve our lives—one small step at a time.
Mindfulness is necessary when we seek purposeful change. We must closely and compassionately examine feelings of vulnerability, shame, fear and anger. Through compassionate awareness the reactionary chain of feelings, behaviors and justifying thoughts can be disrupted and modified. The driving need for personal perfection and unconditional acceptance can be tamed.
Numerous studies support the human ability to effectively change thought—and thus change reactions. Albert Ellis achieved success with cognitive behavioral therapy using the ABC model, confronting distorted thinking. The ABC model contains three components: (A) The activating event (B) The belief about the event (C) The consequent emotions
In theory, Albert proposed that by challenging the belief, we alter the consequent emotions. While the ABC’s are an over simplification of experience, they do provide a basic foundation for challenging beliefs and altering overwhelming emotions. With effort, mature adults can recognize emotional responses and associated thoughts contributing to the emotion. Many of these chains, firing bouts of extreme emotions, are remnants from childhood. By recognizing felt experience as a complex construction of various inputs—emotions, thoughts, past, associations, moods, beliefs, expectations—we better navigate around the emotions leading away from our intentions. Once disengaged, curiously examining as a non-interested observer, we can see the emotion more clearly as a point in a reactionary chain. With mental space, extreme emotions signal further examination of internal inputs rather than condemnation and war with external triggers.
Effectively challenging felt experience is a skill; through regular practice, we become proficient. By acknowledging the variety of inputs, we lessen the power of an individual thought or feeling to lead us astray. By breaking reactionary chains, knowledge of personal imperfection fails to overwhelm, prompting feelings of inadequacy. From a position of strength, we cast the light of awareness on the personal areas needing attention.
Destructive behaviors—whether acknowledged or not—interfere with healthy functioning. Many protective mechanisms, although served a previous purpose, become a hindrance to growth. Endless streams of justifications interfere with insight. Justifications, projections, distortions and denials fight attempts to change. Faulty thinking offers momentary relief but the thorn of destructive behaviors remains intact. Unhealthy behaviors deeply imbedded in reactions fester and continually interfere with progression.
When new information sparks discomfort, instead of blindly reacting with defensiveness, pause, feel the experience, and without judgment quietly ask, "Why do I feel this way? Why did this evoke strong emotions?” We gain insight by asking probing questions, listening to honest answers. “Does the current experience resemble anything from the past? Is it undermining a belief we are highly invested in?”
When we investigate interactions, examining feelings, we identify hidden components that influence emotions. We discover the pesky involvement of the ego. We must skeptically screen our emotions, thoughts and judgments for error. Just because we think something, or believe something doesn’t equate legitimacy—we miscalculate, impose faulty context, and blunder with assessments. We have habitual patterns of thought. We attribute causes a certain way. These patterns etched in our psyche interrupt healthy change. Unless we challenge these habitual patterns, they will continually prevent personal insights.
I am not free of disrupting ego reactions. The ego is involved in all aspects of our lives. The ego is an essential artifact of consciousness. But by recognizing the ego’s influence, we can limit its negative impact, exposing defensive thinking. More accurate assessments of ourselves and experience, we effectively arm ourselves for battle.
Mindful recognition of the ego and the protective defense systems doesn’t magical dissolve all discomfort. Discomforting emotions remain a part of the human experience. Like all changes, successful implementation requires working through unplanned struggles and obstacles. But with patience, thoughtfulness, and personal acceptance we can successfully navigate around and through the challenges. We never finish the work, but we can travel the dusty roads of change with peaceful acceptance and a cheerful smile. We are in the process of becoming who we will never actually be but attaining a life much better than the past. ~Troy Murphy