Softening the Pain of Change
Persisting Through the Discomfort
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2016
Change, even wonderful change, hurts. We must push against the flow to achieve something different.
Often, we find ourselves unsettled with our lives; we want change. After all, individual development commences at birth and continues to the grave. But the darn ego gets in the way. Acknowledging character flaws triggers fear—the fear we are not good enough. We refuse to acknowledge personal flaws with a subconscious purpose to protect the ego. Recognition shakes security. And we want to feel secure, knowing we are relevant, that we can overcome any challenge. We also want to be accepted—likable and supported. Information that rattles security disrupts, reminding of our vulnerability to the unknown and uncontrollable world; we some realities when they expose weakness. By tucking frightful knowledge into the tidy corners of the subconscious, security is maintained, and growth adverted.
Defensive processes are not malfunctions. These processes bolster 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 inability to connect—it was my partner’s fault. Children are especially susceptible to defensive thinking. The protective mechanisms serve important functions for growing young minds. Unfortunately, many childhood protections continue long after the original purpose has been served. Unnecessary protective mechanisms slow growth, limit intimacy, and prevent learning.
While we can’t handle the full weight of all truth, our growth depends on small doses, bringing us closer to reality, and continually exposing dangerous deceptions so we can realign with reality.
Exposing our 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 providing effective escapes, the protective thought patterns imperceptibly give generous explanations softening the hard truth of 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 mental resources, leaving us depressed and helpless. Nothing gets accomplished when we collapse into unproductive states of mind; our mind automatically intervenes to keep us functioning. Sometime these automatic responses get out of whack, magnifying small matters or ignoring important matters. When this happens, our protective thinking complicates our lives, leading us down destructive paths, and confusing memories. The mess perplexes choices with the chaotic connections from misunderstood pasts.
"Exposing our egos to painful self-knowledge requires courage; abandoning engrained responses is a daunting task."
We are imperfect. There’s no perfect approach to experience. We’ll fulfill every goal, hope and intention. Our predictions will be amiss. Understanding complexity exceeds our mental capabilities; we must simplify. We courageously approach life trusting our predictions of what we will encounter, even though we predict with only fractured information, filtered and sanitized. Success at relationships, education, professional life, and health are intricate constructions of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviors. But success is also dependent on some outside forces, unknown events may interfere even when our actions are 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 fail. Or conversely, we can do the wrong things and somehow still succeed. 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.
Life is not completely random—it is ordered. There is order and reason behind everything. We have control over many of the contributing factors to 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 never know all the contributing factors therefore we can’t always accurately predict or perfectly control outcomes. We are vulnerable to unknown factors.
Vulnerability shakes security. Acceptance of reality, eventually unveils the complexity of life, reminding that the many forces intertwine to form experience. We fearfully must acknowledge that some experience—both good and bad—fall outside our realm of control; we are vulnerable. Our thoughts prefer to deny these realities, diminishing the role unknowns, and giving more weight to personal control. These beliefs lesson the sense of vulnerability, even in circumstances when our control is only marginal.
If I believe drinking plenty of water prevents cancer, and I begin to drink 8 ounces of water every hour, my fear of cancer diminishes whether the practice is effective or not. I may be still vulnerable to the disease; I just don’t think I am. I experience increased security although the belief may be faulty.
We all (whether raised in a chaos or order) respond to personal imperfections with a degree of defensiveness. Vulnerability is scary. Shame is painful. The frightening feelings can’t be entirely avoided; we are limited, futures can be influenced but not controlled. These limitations create anxiety that to flourish we must gracefully and productively managed.
A boxer’s underestimation of an opponent and over estimation of himself boosts confidence but once inside the ring, the faulty constructions exposes the fighter to a painful reality. With imperfections, we still can enjoy healthy relationships, successful careers, and successful attainment of hopes and dreams. Denying these perfections, doesn’t bolster our strength, but increases susceptibility to the strong strikes and blows of a complicated and unpredictable life. An accurate knowledge of self prevents a mismatch in the ring, protecting us from superior opponents.
Honest assessments of self generate some discomfort; a signal to prepare and move forward cautiously, keeping challenges manageable. For optimum growth, we must find the sacred middle ground of being challenged but not emotionally overwhelmed.
Mindfulness is necessary. We must compassionately examine feelings of vulnerability, shame, fear and anger that arises with self-awareness. Through compassionate acceptance of feelings, the driving need for personal perfection and unconditional acceptance can be tamed.
Albert Ellis confronted distorted thinking with cognitive behavioral therapy using the ABC model:
(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 simplified model of a complex function, they provide a foundation of understanding for the difficult foray into altering overwhelming emotions. With effort, mature adults can recognize emotions and the associated thoughts contributing to experience and purposely begin to meddle with the disturbing chains of reactions, infusing new thoughts and behaviors into old routines. Many chaotic actions, full of powerful emotion are unwelcome remnants from childhood.
Effectively challenging felt experience is a skill; with regular practice, we can become proficient. By breaking unproductive reactionary chains, we can act from a position of strength, no longer frightened by imperfection.
When new information sparks discomfort, instead of blindly reacting, pause for a moment, giving sufficient space to feel the experience, and then without judgment be in the moment. Loosening the chains of defensive reactions, examining the situation for more appropriate responses—the action that bring us towards our goals. These investigations uncover the pesky involvement of the ego. Unless we challenge these habitual patterns, our actions will prevent deeper insights.
Mindful recognition of the mind’s protective system doesn’t cure discomfort. Discomforting emotions are part of human experience. Successful changes require working through struggles. But with patience, thoughtfulness, and personal acceptance, we can navigate life, experiencing the pleasures and joys in great abundance.
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