This week, I'd like to share with you an image I use to help people begin to understand their relationship to their feelings and the past -- particularly those feelings and memories that they have spent a lot of time avoiding. I'm a therapist and I will willingly admit that sometimes, feelings suck. Dealing with some of the powerful feelings that most often get labeled as "the bad ones" -- anger, shame, hate, fear, anxiety, depression, to name a few -- is almost never fun. Their impact on the brain and the body can leave us feeling paralyzed, restless, exhausted, confused, or in pain. As the clever humans that we are, we have figured out one pretty effective way of dealing with things and people we don't like...AVOID THEM! Brilliant! That person I don't like? Don't talk to them. That place I don't like? Don't go there. That feeling I don't like? Don't feel it. Such is the strength of our desire to avoid unnecessary suffering, that we have turned avoidance into an art form. Avoidance now takes many forms and can quickly become the first line of defense.
"What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size."-Carl Jung
Now, I must admit that I am not a fan of scary movies and almost always come to regret the times when I actually sit through one. That being said, I haven't seen a huge number of scary movies, but I have seen enough to know that much about them directly relates to our topic today. The problem with avoidance (one of many), is that it doesn't actually make the problem go away. Ignoring the creepy house at the end of the block where Old Man Withers used to live does not make the house go away or be any less creepy. It just means I have to go two blocks out of my way to get to school. Small trade right? Unfortunately, for many of us this is generally true. The small tasks of avoidance that we employ to avoid feeling anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, embarrassed, or any other "bad feeling" tend to start small.
The problem is, they almost always grow over time. The desire to avoid feeling embarrassed is pretty well managed by not volunteering for public speaking events but this eventually leads to not speaking up in meetings, not sharing your opinion, and then not feeling comfortable in social situations where anymore might expect you to talk so you just stay home and isolate. We take one feeling and develop a whole complicated story around it that turns it into a monster. And monsters are, of course, super scary. Also, because so many of us try to deal with things on our own, it leads to having a world filled with monsters and trying to deal with them on our own through increasing amounts of avoidance. Inevitably, something happens that can't be avoided and then things get scary. Poor little Jimmy was doing so well avoiding Old Man Withers' house until the night his dog chased a squirrel into the house and he went in after him alone. ::Cue the creaky door noise::
There are a few basic life lessons I have learned from horror films that I will share with you here.
1. Turn on the lights, whenever possible. This is one of the toughest requests I make of people in therapy -- Be willing to talk about it. Anything that is hidden, secret, or kept in the dark will get warped and distorted over time. It's important to develop trust with a therapist before you may feel comfortable talking about certain experiences in your life, but it's incredibly important to not keep secrets from your therapist. Walking through the dark is always going to be harder than having the lights on. Seems obvious, but is of critical importance. Trying to navigate a dark and creepy house without any lights is going to lead to more fear, more frustration, and less likelihood of feeling successful.
2. Do not, under any circumstances, split up. This is one thing that I never understand about the movies I've watched: When the group of people running from a masked man decide that it makes sense to split up, I yell at the TV. Remember, everything is harder and scarier when we are doing it alone. People coming into therapy often want to continue avoiding their feelings even in the therapy process. The idea of doing the emotional work is overwhelming from past experiences and there is little hope that talking about it with someone else will make it any less overwhelming. I begin by explaining that even though they have most often been alone with their feelings before, that therapy works to undo aloneness. Working to establish a connection first allows for you to have the experience of not being alone. You may still be scared or overwhelmed, but it will be to a much lesser degree.
3. The monster is not as scary as you think. The scariest parts of a horror movie tend to be the moments early on when it's all flashes of light, unexpected noises, and the mystery around what's happening. I remember watching Scooby Doo as a kid and seeing the classic "reveal" at the end where the gang strips the mask off whatever ghoul they battled that episode and realizing that it was just a guy. Now, in horror films made for adult audiences, the monsters tend to be more terrifying. Even so, there is something to be said for knowing what you're up against. The act of avoiding these memories and feelings increases the power of our narrative about their strength, pain, and ability to be endured in a way that makes them larger than life. Being able to have a visual of what the monster is changes the amount of power it has over you.
Combining all three of these rules allows for us to change an experience from being on the big screen in a dark theater to being on a 12 inch TV at two in the afternoon with the sound turned down low.
Learning to not avoid our scary feelings or experiences is not a quick process. The avoidance of these types of experiences becomes habit and it requires support to break. The therapist's role is to continue to be a calm, supportive, and encouraging presence in the person's life so that they can develop a genuinely held belief that "I never need to be alone in what I feel ever again" -- and that's more powerful than any monster.