People have infinite ways of providing themselves comfort as an answer to emotional pain. Cutting, burning, picking or scratching the skin; pulling out hair, chewing nails down to the quick. Actually almost anything done excessively in an altered state can do the trick: shopping, spending, hoarding, exercising, sex, masturbating, gambling, and, of course, eating or restricting eating. Almost anything that can be put in the mouth, inhaled, touch the skin, or impact the nervous system in a dramatic way that releases endorphins is of great use to those suffering emotional pain. Many modalities share the common advantages of being individually controlled, can be done in private and kept secret, pose no resistance of themselves, break no laws, and create a very efficient, alternate hedonic loop in the brain that gets the relief to where it needs to be in a hurry. An alternate route of satiety and relief that is much faster and effective than other routes. Actually, to understand how these methods alter the nervous system to relieve pain is to understand they are a rather brilliant idea.
But how can I, as a therapist, say that? Well, Jon Connelly, the creator of Rapid Resolution Therapy has reminded us that the human predicament is quite unlike any other animal’s walking the face of the earth. When a dog or a monkey has to deal with having to run or fight for its life, the brain’s emotional mechanism floods them with negative feeling and motivates them to profoundly pay attention and take action to get their situation to stop happening. It is turned on and off quite efficiently. They are not in pain while it’s on. A rabbit running for its life is motivated, alert, and made unusually strong and fast. It all lasts no more than seconds, at most, a couple minutes.
The animal, if it survives, shivers a bit, shakes out its coat, and resets emotionally back to normal. It goes about nursing whatever physical wounds it has suffered matter-of-factly, without anything like emotional pain. If it is caught and its brain understands there is no chance for escape or successful counterattack, a kind of peacefulness settles over it and its mind exits the scene. There is no emotional pain there either.
But not so with us. For us, the flush of anger, grief, fear, betrayal, outrage, etc., can turn on and stay on for years. Think about the predicament of some people having to cope with the flood of something meant to meet survival challenge with all its original intensity every hour of their life. Unremitting jacked up anger, horror, terror, disgust. You get up with it, you spend your day with it, go to bed with it, and it is there in the night. A switch that had it turned off would have been tolerable, but now stuck in the “on” position, spells excruciating pain. And then because humans can stick on meanings afterward, shame, guilt, or hate may also appear. Still another layer of pain. This guy is sitting on a bench and sees a pretty lady chatting happily with a man. He remembers his wife’s infidelity. That gal is riding on a subway and she smells a certain body odor. She remembers her rape. All you have to do is lightly push on the sore spot and even though it’s twenty years later the person is beside themselves. It no longer has anything to do with survival but the old brain doesn’t know that. It keeps sending the signal to get it to stop.
Take cutting. Imagine how sick of that pain you’d have to be to be willing to localize and control it by cutting on the tender tissues of the breasts or inner thighs or even genitals. Connelly points out that now at least you have it in one place and you know who’s doing it and how long the worst part will last.
From this perspective, it is not hard to figure how something damaging that also offers relief, containment, and instant comfort could be recategorized by the primitive part of our mind as an old friend, a reliable one at that. But that is not how the parents who bring in their 14 year-old daughter to therapy see her cutting, or how the culture sees the 22-year old’s bulimia or the sex addict’s repeated immersions in pornography. The culture to protect itself sees the behavior and wants us to put it outside the limits of acceptable with a label. Instead, this attitude glues pathology onto the person’s identity even firmer as they are seen as weird, abnormal, and aberrant because people are more likely to go along with a consensual meaning instead of taking a longer look at a phenomenon for themselves. And this is what is happening even if we give it a fancy diagnostic name.
And what if counselors buy into all this distancing and labeling? To me it’s like going up to a very lonely and desperate person and insulting them for choosing to hang with the one friend they’d found in the world. “Hey, Why do you keep hanging around with that jack**s?”, is not a question I want to lead with or imply. I want them to get that I get how much pain they’ve been in. Are there better ways to handle it? Without a doubt. But I won’t get there, won’t get a connection with that person in order to shift them into something better until they get that I get them.
It’s on me to convey that I understand how desperate they got and how frightening it would be to let go of that old friend. And that I have something better in view, like an end to the obsolete messages themselves; the start of a whole new life.
Mark A. Chidley, LMHC, Certified Rapid Resolution Therapist, CAP, a fully licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional, offers counseling services at his office Kelly San Carlos Executive Center in Fort Myers, Florida.He has been in private practice since 1997. He holds certifications in Rapid Trauma Resolution(2010), Imago Relationship therapy (2001), and now specializes in the treatment of couples as well as individual trauma recovery and anxiety issues. He brings rich experience from a combined 26 years of hospital work and mental health counseling.
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