Keith Ablow has written a great book about our tendency to minimize, deny, or otherwise try to hide from the pain of our past. It’s a great book for people in recovery, because it encourages people to face the reality of their pain, and therefore to heal from it. Many people get stuck in their recovery, continuing patterns of relapse, because they haven’t dealt with the soul wounds that drive their addiction. In early life, they turned to sex or chemicals or food to help them cope with their pain … and in adulthood, when those old wounds get triggered, they reach for the old solutions.
The book is so good that I’m going to include some quotes here. He opens the book with the following:
“The origins of delf-deception run deep inside us. As we mature, small lies we tell ourselves about the past build into an impenetrable web of denial and fantasy that conceals our pain. This web has to be unraveled if we are ever to find our way back to the people we were meant to be.
“We all tell ourselves lies; we all have buried truths. Most of us fear revealing them, even to ourselves. So we leave them buried and do whatever it takes to keep them there, sometimes forever. Our lives become more and more inauthentic. We forget that … coming to grips with the truth, rooted in the past, is our greatest source of power.” (p 15)
“In working with thousands of patients over the last fifteen years, I have found that human beings have a reflex reaction to psychological pain no different from their reaction to physical pain. We withdraw from it. We try to avoid thinking about not only the paintful aspects of our lives today but those in the past, all the way back to childhood. This should come as no surprise. No one wants to feel bad, and the human instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain (including painful recollections) has been a central principle in philosophy and psychology since the time of the ancient Greeks.” (p 18)
“Almost all of us live at some distance from the painful truths about our lives, sometimes going to great lengths to continue avoiding them. To the extent that we do, we actually diminish ourselves. To find the self-esteem we need to live full lives, we have to look back to when and how we were deprived of it. In truth, our pain is the source of our power… Robert Frost put it this way: ‘Something we were withholding made us weak, Until we found out that it was ourselves.’ (p 24)
“Ignoring the facts of one’s life – especially the painful ones – only puts the negative patterns unconsciously fueled by these issues more in command of one’s future. As Carl Jung wrote, ‘That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.’ You can’t outdistance the past. The truth always wins.” (p 33)
“What happens when people live their lives trying to dodge the truth? It gets harder and harder to stop that truth from surfacing and slapping you in the face. You need to find ways to keep your mind from focusing on your pain. And that means alcoholism, drug dependence, addiction to food, gambling, cigarettes or sex, endless hours working jobs that don’t speak to your heart because your heart is under wraps, romances that aren’t true love because they’re based on old lies, sons and daughters who can’t connect with you because you aren’t connected to yourself.” (p 38)
“Our emotional vulnerability is itself a rare gift. Because without being vulnerable to sadness and disappointment and doubt, we would have no ability to trulyexperience and fully feel their opposites: joy, celebration, and reassurance.
“Nobody wants to live in sadness, disappointment, and doubt. That’s why all of us develop what I call “sheild strategies” to keep emotional pain at bay. Some are fairly obvious, some much more subtle. But common to all shield strategies is the fact that they cover up the truth. And that truth – including every compicated, hidden, hurtful page of our life story – is your buried treasure. It is the nonfiction foundation upon which you can build real relationships, real character, real success, and real compassion for others.
“You are the one holding the shield. And it only gets heavier with each passing day. It saps your energy. It steals your focus. And it cheats you of learning that you are far stronger, more courageous, and more capable than you believe. As long as you’re holding the shield, you’re living in fear.” (p 39)
Why we deny the truth
“How does it happen that by the time we are adults, we live lives partly based on denial, fiction, and repression, depriving ourselves of the enormouse personal power that comes from living the truth? Part of the answer is that as vulnerable children and adolescents, we began quietly recording our life stories – mentally writing autobiographies designed to make us feel safe and loved and to insulate us from the real psychological toll of thinking we were in any way at risk.
“To do this, we had to see our parents, the people we relied on for our very survival, as being good or making good sense – even if they weren’t or didn’t, and even if it meant burying reality and parts of our true selves in service to a reassuring version of our early life experiences.
“Research data supports this tendency to window-dress. Some abused children selectively remember the rare positive experiences they had with those who abused them. Severely traumatized children may forget being abused altogether. And a child rejected by his or her father or mother will often identify with the rejecting parent in order to regain that parent’s love, despite the fact that doing so means denying deeply held feelings of anxiety, shame, and anger.
“Our truth was distored not only by denying the hurst we suffered but by a kind of permeability to the narrative force of others. The way our parents, older siblings, teachers, and other caretakers interpreted (or spun) the meaning of the events unfolding around us influenced the way we came to understand them. We echoed and mimicked their perspectives because we wanted to rely on them and participate in a shared experience with them, and because we were still learning about ourselves and the world…In other words, kids will surrender their version of reality to that of the powerful adults around them.” (p 107-108)
Facing the truth is not about blame
“One of the hurdles in seeking out the pain in your past and turning it into your pwer is that it can feel as if you are blaming others for your misfortune, including people you love, such as your parents or siblings or grandparents. Many of my patients pause at the door of self-discovery and tell me a version of, ‘I don’t want to make it seem like my parents are responsible for what I’m going through. That just seems like a cop-out.’ Others want me to know that their parents did the best they could, that they love their parents, despite their shortcomings.
“These worries reflect a core misunderstanding about the ultimate goal of living the truth. Living the truth isn’t only about empowering yourself by short-circuiting the human tendency to pull away from your own pain. It’s about realizing that your parents and grand parents were limited by the same very human, bery understandable, yet very toxic, dynamic. They did the best they could with the psychological resources they had, whether or not it was good enought to minimize your suffering and keep you safe. Living the truth is about forgiveness, not blame.” (p 181-182)
Facing the truth is about forgiveness
“Identifying the ways in which you were injured as a child, adolescent, or young adult is by no means taking the easy way out or looking for an excuse to blame someone else for your suffering. It is simply accepting the reality that you were injured and refusing to bury that reality for yet another generation, thereby extinguishing its toxic potential in your own lifetime.
“Of course, many people do become angry as they realize that the actions of others have diminished their lives. But here is where religion intersects with psychiatry. Because to accept your pain, grow from it, and truly become greater than it ultimately requires forgiving others for inflicting it upon you. It requires realizing they did so out of ignorance and fear and the very same resistande to feeling and owning their own pain that you are now – only now – committing to overcoming. The truth always wins, but it can take a long time.” (p 187)