Staying in recovery requires the capacity to face our own uncomfortable feelings. But what if we don't yet have this capacity? There is only one way to develop it: by spending time actually facing our own uncomfortable feelings. Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D., has written a great blog post on this topic entitled "Avoidance, Sobriety and Reality: The Psychology of Addiction." Here are a couple of excerpts:
"Psychologically speaking, addiction is all about escapism. Avoidance. Denial. Addicts run from reality, and, in some cases, have been running all their lives. The addict cannot tolerate reality and its vicissitudes. Neither internal nor external reality. They find reality repugnant, uncomfortable, overwhelming, and prefer, like the psychotic, withdrawal into fantasy, bliss or oblivion over reality. They seek constantly to alter subjective and objective reality to their own liking. For one thing, reality--the existential facts of life--can be both painful and anxiety-provoking. Like all of us, addicts don't like confronting pain or feeling anxiety. That's human nature and comports with Freud's "pleasure principle": we all tend, whenever possible, to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Addicts prefer the pleasure of intoxication, the bliss of oblivion to the suffering, banality, ordinariness and difficulty of mundane day to day reality. Of course. Reality inevitably includes suffering, pain, loss. Reality entails consciously acknowledging, not just intellectually but emotionally, both what was hurtfully done to us in the past (by parents, peers or others) and what we have hurtfully done to others. Who wants to experience (or re-experience) that? But the problem is that to avoid this reality the addict has to keep getting high, because these "demons" never go away. They're always there, lurking, waiting to bite them in the ass as soon as they start coming down. And what goes up must always come down. So this is the psychological problem of addiction. And when it (consciousness) comes crashing back to earth, reality and withdrawal from fantasy painfully set in. The psychological and emotional demons and demands of reality return with a vengeance. Reality cannot be run from indefinitely. A major part of addiction treatment entails acknowledging, confronting and experiencing reality. In most cases, the addiction has permitted the patient to keep outer reality and his or her inner demons at bay. Sobriety forces the addict to face reality, motivating the addict to want to find some way to avoid or alter it again. Breaking this vicious, sometimes fatal cycle of avoidance of inner and outer reality is the key to treatment....
"The antidote to addiction is learning to tolerate reality. Little by little. That is what sobriety really is. This is what the recovering addict needs the most assistance with: soberly dealing with inner and outer reality. And part of existential reality involves personal responsibility. We are responsible for consciously facing and dealing with our inner demons as constructively as possible. And we are responsible for dealing maturely with the outer world. It is clear that...sobriety (be it from alcohol or other substance abuse or compulsive sexual behavior) demands accepting the same reality we all deal with every day: being responsible for ourselves; making choices that are in our own best interest; tolerating tedium, frustration, anxiety and life's inevitable physical and emotional suffering. Addiction is the habitual avoidance of reality. What the addict needs to discover is that reality is bigger than we are. A devastating blow to one's narcissistic grandiosity, to be sure. But the beginning of healing wisdom and willingness to accept and embrace reality-including both its negative and positive aspects--on its own terms."
You can check out Dr. Diamond's entire article here.
I think of emotion avoidance as one of the key links in the chain of addiction. Facing our feelings, our voluntary immersion in emotion, is one of the key tools for breaking that chain. Thanks Dr. Diamond for making such a great case. This is one of the ugliest and most difficult aspects of recovery, but the results in our lives are beautiful and so worthwhile.
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Funny how it goes. After finishing this post yesterday I came upon this very fitting quote from M. Scott Peck:
"Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."