Don't avoid pain.

I recently had a realization. For the past ten or so years I have been really working on improving myself. I have a tendency to be anxious and depressed. I would question why I felt this way even when I seemingly had everything a person could want. I had my health, family, a good job, a house, working vehicles. I made enough money that I didn’t have to decide which bill I was going to let go past due each month. But I still couldn’t help from feeling like a failure. I constantly felt like I just needed one more thing and my life would really start. Maybe that next job would make me happy. Maybe getting married, having kids, or finishing my bachelor degree would do it. I have done hypnotherapy, float tanks, medication, meditation, read self-help books, exercised, did yoga, and everything else I could find to try to get rid of this pain I felt inside me. Nothing made it go away until I learned to lean into the pain.

I could always distract myself from the pain but it never lasted. It would always come back and each time it would be terrifying to me. I’d say to my wife “I thought I had beaten this. Why is it coming back now?” I’d feel completely defeated. It felt like I was looking down a long tunnel that just kept getting longer no matter how much progress I made. I thought it would never end and sometimes even contemplated suicide as the only way out. I never got as far as making actual plans to kill myself, but I often found myself wishing that I’d get hit by a bus on the way into work and it would all be over for me. I’d tell myself that at least that way I wasn’t being selfish and it would just be an accident.

When I felt this way my immediate actions were to do as much as I could to make it stop. I’d feel knots in my stomach and know the anxiety was coming so I’d watch funny movies or do a meditation to relax myself or workout or take a xanax (my medication for panic attacks). This all worked to some degree. It took the edge off a little bit, and would let up to the point I could get some sleep but it would always come back. I’d constantly be in fear about when and where the anxiety was going to strike. I knew that it could happen at any moment so I started to fear places where an attack would be the most inconvenient. Movie theaters, airplanes, work meetings would all cause me anxiety because I’d be waiting for it to show up and ruin my day. Anxiety about anxiety. Crazy right? It’s anxiety all the way down. For a while in my early 20’s I usually couldn’t fall asleep until about 8 or 9 am when I was so exhausted I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. If I tried before then I’d usually fall asleep for a few seconds then jolt awake in a cold sweat hyperventilating. This was even with SSRI’s and sleep meds.

Fear is a rational response to certain stimuli. The problem with people suffering with anxiety is our fight or flight response is miscalibrated. It is a valid reaction when you’re being attacked by another person or chased by a bear.  But we tend to have the fear response when our boss asks if he can see us in his office or when we go into a crowded movie theater. For the longest time I just believed that I was an anxious person and I would always have these anxieties. I just knew there were certain things I was never going to be able to do. Like if a class had a big project that had a presentation portion I just knew I would be getting a fail on that assignment. One time my boss asked me to put together a training for some of my coworkers on some software I was in charge of supporting. I literally started applying for new jobs that same day and left the company before I ever had to complete it. I’m not saying that was the only reason I left, but it was a big factor.

I felt trapped. I would start down the path doing something to fix my anxiety but it would inevitably cause more anxiety and I’d stop. I’d start working out, but once I hit the point of failure I’d have a panic attack because I felt out of control. I wrote about my struggle with anxiety in another article and I don’t want to rehash all of that here. But suffice it to say I tried a lot of things.

So here I was doing everything I could find to fix my anxiety and I had some success in treating the symptom but it just kept coming back. That’s when I had a realization. This anxiety isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom of something greater. For me that something was abandonment and other issues from my childhood. But more importantly, the reason I wouldn’t or couldn’t see that before is because it was too painful. Not only is it hard to admit that something from so long ago can still affect me so much to this day. It’s also scary to realize that certain memories and people can basically take me right back there. One minute with some people and I’m a 5 year old boy again looking up to them like they’re a god, hoping to get any praise at all. It’s hard to admit that as a 32 year old man so much of what I’ve done in life has been trying to get validation from those people. As hellish as my description of anxiety may sound, it seemed much easier to deal with then going into my past and untangling the mess of feelings and memories from my past.

We’ve been conditioned as a society to avoid pain. Physical and emotional pain are seen as bad and are to be avoided at all costs. We have all sorts of medications, devices, and distractions from our pain. We (boys especially) are taught that to show emotion and to show that we’ve been hurt are signs of weakness. If a young boy shows emotion it will be exploited by bullies to the point where he dreads going to school every day.

The problem with this thinking is it’s completely and utterly wrong. Pain is necessary. In fact pain is the single biggest catalyst for growth. It should be sought after, not avoided and I can prove it to you. I’ll break it down into different categories. Feel free to skip ahead to the categories relevant to you.

Romantic relationships

My wife and I have been through hell. Before we got married, there were a couple times I didn’t think it would happen. A couple times since we got married I was sure I would lose her. I have a history of sabotaging my relationships when things start to get real. So as soon as it was looking like it was time to make a decision about whether I wanted to marry this woman I started to push her away. I was distant on dates, at family events, at home I’d turn on the tv and play video games. Of course this caused strife. Another common thing for me is to complain and make myself look like the victim in any situation. I make it seem like people are picking on me, then it is a valid excuse for coming up short.. So I started complaining to anyone who would listen. I’d talk about how nothing could make my girlfriend happy and I was doing all I could. Whenever things got rough at home, one person I would complain to was a woman at work. We started off talking about surface stuff at first, but then we became each other’s shoulder to cry on. As always happens, the conversations got more and more in depth and at some point crossed the line. I took the relationship well beyond friendly coworkers and well into emotional cheating territory. Luckily for me my then girlfriend, now wife caught me before it ever escalated to a physical relationship. She found the chat logs and was waiting for me when I got home. She told me to get out. I thought it was over. After a couple days of pitying myself I arranged to talk with her again. I apologized, I begged, I pleaded. After a couple weeks of going back and forth and hours upon hours of conversation she finally agreed to try to give me a second chance.

The conversations we had were so much deeper than any conversations we had up until this point. We’d been living together for almost a year and a half. But before this, we had never gone as in depth about our fears, our past behaviors, and our future dreams. The process of repairing the damage I caused took years. To fix it I had to agree to be completely open with her and never hide anything ever again. I gave her the password to my phone, my email account, even my lastpass. For years after, when I’d relapse into my old closed off self her mind would immediately go back to those memories and I’d have to talk her down.

This experience was deeply painful for both of us. But without this experience or one like it we never would have the level of trust we have now. Talking about the why and the how this happened led us to learn things we never would have known about each other. Losing her taught me how selfish I had been. Also how I never wanted her to hurt like that again and never wanted to lose her again. Through the pain our relationship became stronger than it ever was before.

Obviously I don’t recommend this mistake for anyone. In fact I highly recommend that you learn from my mistake and avoid hurting someone like that. When I’ve seen friends going down this path I try to steer them away. The point of this story is we decided to work through it instead of breaking up. It would have been far far easier to break up and start over with a different person. It was deeply painful and extremely difficult to work through this but I’m a better person for pushing through this pain. I’m saying the mistake didn’t make me better, but putting in the work to get through it did. I’m not sure if we’d be married right now if not for me doing this stupid, horrible thing. I was too wishy washy before. I was too apprehensive about what I really wanted and it wasn’t until I lost it that I really figured it out.

Family relationships

I was A HANDFUL as a kid. In the 3rd grade I was “invited” to not come back to the private school my parents put me in to help me learn discipline. When I went to the 4th grade, public school seemed like absolute freedom. No corporal punishment meant there were no real consequences for my actions. No one could force me to do what I didn’t want to do.  I got in fights, disrupted class, tortured my poor teacher and got “invited” to go to another school before finishing 4th grade.

My parents didn’t know what to do with me. My dad and step-mom took one approach and my mom and step-dad took a different one. I resented both step-parents and let them know it. I told them I hated them and they weren’t my real parents. As a young kid I thought that if I pushed hard enough my step-parents would leave and my parents could get back together. When that didn’t work I pushed all of my parents to the absolute limits.

In high school I started to get into the kind of trouble that can ruin a kid’s life. I was doing drugs, stealing, drinking, running away. I felt untouchable because no one could make me do anything. My parents could ground me but they couldn’t stop me from sneaking out. Teachers would give me detention and I’d laugh and tell them I wasn’t going to go. When I got suspended for not going to detention one time my mom had enough. She told me to get out of her house. So I left and went to a cousin’s house whose mom was away for the weekend. I didn’t tell anyone where I was and after a night of frantically calling everyone they knew my parents finally tracked me down. I refused to go home so my mom and step-dad came to get me. When they arrived I still refused to go. My step-dad tried to force me into the car and I struggled against him. During the struggle my shirt got ripped and I got a few scratches. I caused such a scene that my parents ended up leaving and calling the police. When the police came I tried to file a report claiming my step dad hit me and was abusive. The police saw right through it and took me to jail, then a juvenile receiving center.

After leaving me in the receiving center for a couple days, my parents came to pick me up. I wish I could tell you I learned my lesson and this was the last time but it wasn’t. I ran away and ended up there two or three more times. On my last visit it wasn’t my parents who came to pick me up. It was Lee Caldwell, CEO of Turnabout, a program for troubled kids.

My experience at Turnabout could be a whole book by itself. But to sum up I spent the next 11 months of my life in a residential treatment program. It was designed to teach me the error of my ways and what I could do to fix it. This wasn’t like a boot camp where you get yelled at for a week and do some hard work then they expect you to improve. This was daily large and small group therapy. No stone was left unturned, no secret remained secret. Every bad habit was addressed and analyzed.

The program didn’t end until the staff and your parents felt like you were ready to go home. Some kids were there a couple years, others just a couple months. There were weekly parents groups where kids and parents would all sit in a group therapy session together. Each group usually only focused on one or two families, the other families were there for support and to chime in when they noticed bad behavior.

My mom and step-dad came every week. I talked about every bad thing I had done. Every lie I told them. Every resentment I had with them, we’d talk through it. They also worked out their resentments with me. By the time I was finished I had a better relationship with my parents than ever before. I still hadn’t quite pulled my head out of my ass, but I was much closer. We went through a few more years of strife, but because we had that baseline and learned how to communicate with each other our relationship grew immensely.

I try to have lunch with my mom once a week and see my step-dad all the time. As a matter of fact we went to game 5 of the stanley cup playoffs together this year and got to see the Caps lift the cup. All of that pain we experienced together was the only way to fix our relationship.

Now my more astute readers will notice that I didn’t mention my dad and step-mom. They were against Turnabout from the beginning. My dad doesn’t believe in psychologists and mental disorders. Because of that, I believe he only dialed in to one group session and we never got to work on our problems during my stay. To the best of my recollection, we still to this day have only had one real conversation about our emotions. My relationship with my dad and step-mom is nowhere near as deep and honest as the one with my mom and step-dad. It’s something I really want to work on, but haven’t had an opportunity. The desire doesn’t seem to run both ways.

Fitness

Have you ever worked out and been sore afterward? The pain can be debilitating. But it’s a constant reminder that you pushed yourself. You fought against Newton’s first law and put objects in motion that wanted to stay at rest. Your body rewards you by repairing the damage and preparing itself for more abuse. Without that pain, you can’t improve. If you only ran to the end of the block, you’d never be able to finish a marathon or even a 5k. If you only lifted weights that were easy for you to lift, you’d never get stronger. There has to be pain to improve.

Diet is a huge part of fitness. I’ve cut back on my carb intake and try to replace sugars with healthy fats. Lots of times I’ll think that I want a coke or I deserve a donut because I worked hard today. But I remind myself that it’s good to feel hungry sometimes. It is good to eat the foods that are good for you even if you don’t like the taste because it builds discipline. Plus as @jockowillink says the donut is just sugar covered lies.

Work

I am often not a great employee. I know it’s shocking after reading the stories above. But at one point in my career I was working somewhere I loved. I busted my ass for that company. I poured my heart and soul into my job. If I ran out of work I’d ask where else I could help. They were a small enough company that there were a lot of little niches I could fit into. I started as tech support and while I was there I was able to help with QA, IT, website management, SEO, marketing, social media, and video editing.

After I had been with the company 3 years they purchased two existing websites from other companies. No one at the company had much experience or time to manage websites like this so I offered my services. I was so excited when they finally said I could do the job half time and my support job the other half of the time.

It took me all of one day to realize I was in over my head. I had built a few wordpress sites and messed around with a little html and css. But I had never done anything at this level. At my best, the sites I managed would get like 200 hits a day. These sites were getting 30,000-90,000 a month. So when I broke the site and it was unreachable for 4 hours, people noticed.

I had never pushed myself to learn so much so fast in my life. While I did end up getting laid off from that job after two years. The knowledge and experience I gained there allowed me to seriously climb the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, it also gave me an entrepreneurial desire to work for myself and not rely on another company for my stability (getting laid off can do that to you). But that’s another story.

The point is, if I had just resigned myself to failure, told myself that this job was going to be too hard for me and not put my hat in the ring. I never would have learned any of the things I did. I would never be where I am today. In the two years since being laid off I’ve increased my salary almost 60%. I’ve started a side business that brings in a not insignificant amount of money. I also have the confidence to do things I don’t feel qualified for. It is scary to put yourself out there. Failure can hurt. It is definitely a blow to the ego. It’s much easier to be passive, but you’ll never see much growth that way.

Conclusion

Think of a time in your life where you forced yourself to something you were really afraid to do. Something that really scared you. Maybe it was bungee jumping. Maybe it was doing a speech in front of a group of people. Remember being in that position, anticipating the worst case scenario. Butterflies in your stomach, an earthquake in your chest. Then you got up there and did it. The fear didn’t go away but you pushed through it and did it anyway. How did you feel afterward? Better or worse than before? Way better right? Of course it was because you confronted your fear and discomfort.

From the time I was in 4th grade (8-9 years old for you non k-12ers) until I was 23 I had been on some kind of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. The meds helped to even me out but I felt like they evened out the highs as much as the lows. Most people who knew me during my high school years knew me as a monotonous guy who never showed emotion about anything. But the problem was, without meds I felt those emotions deeply. The problem was that I learned the wrong lessons from these meds. Instead of ever learning to feel my emotions and address them I saw them as bad things. If emotions were good, why was I supposed to take meds to make them go away?

No one talked about the painful emotions they felt or the fear they experienced. When those emotions manifested themselves in me I had historically changed medications or switched schools or moved in with different family members. I never learned the lesson that these emotions are essential to life. You can not know the highs if you don’t know the lows. With nothing to compare it to, you can’t know what happiness is.

Our society today is geared towards avoiding these negative thoughts and emotions more than ever before. Social media and news aggregation sites have turned us into passive consumers looking for a dopamine hit of a funny meme or a cool article. Think about when you’re doing something boring like standing in line at the grocery store, waiting at the DMV, or sitting in a meeting. What about when there’s a lull in conversation on a date or at a party? What is your first reaction? For many of us it is to reach in our pockets and pull out our phones. What do we do when we pull out our phones? Do we go actively seek new knowledge about something we’re interested in, or read a book? No, we open Facebook, reddit, imgur, instagram, twitter and are spoon fed a feed of content algorithmically designed to keep us scrolling as long as possible. This is weakness, it shows lack of discipline and it is avoiding some of the most important parts of life.

We need ups and downs. We need times where we’re bored just as much as we need times of stimulation. Endless scrolling is denial just as much as drinking to drown your sorrows is. I started to realize this when every time I’d get really stuck in a rut of looking at social media or playing video games or watching movies. Anytime I refused to do anything I didn’t want to do my anxiety would come on stronger. It’s so important to feel these emotions because they’ll eventually surface anyway.

Marcel Proust said “Illness is the most heeded of doctors: to kindness and wisdom we make promises only; pain we obey.” When we push off doing the hard things and dealing with the emotions until later, we’re choosing to do it the hard way. Had I dealt with my emotions in a healthy way as a kid or adolescent, I would never have gotten to the point where I had physical symptoms of anxiety. Inflammation, gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, are all symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety itself is a symptom of not getting emotional needs met. Why wouldn’t we get our needs met? Because it can be painful. Guess what? It always hurts more later. Ulcers, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome hurt a lot more than an uncomfortable conversation with your father.

Some of the worst panic attacks were on days that I’d get up late, show up at work late, browse reddit and social media all day, then do the same when I got home. It would be especially bad if I knew I had a deadline coming up and did all of that anyway. I was self-sabotaging and my anxiety was a symptom of that. On a deeper level it was a coping mechanism for me. If I did this to myself then at least no one else would be the one who had the opportunity to hurt me.

Ok, so the solution there was obviously to stop procrastinating. When I did that I didn’t get nearly as much anxiety. But what about all the other times where I still did get anxiety? Once I stopped fighting the anxiety and trying to distract myself from it I started learning from it instead. I just had to be brave enough to face it, sit with it and ask myself why I was doing this. Many times my wife would stay up with me to the wee hours of the morning being my therapist, listening to me talk through my problems. She always seemed to know the right thing to say to get me to the place where I understood what was happening.

Now I try to welcome fear, anxiety, and stress. If I’m not feeling uncomfortable then it means I’m not pushing myself. If I have a panic attack it is because I’ve neglected some area of my life and it needs to be addressed. There are a few ways to boil it down and I talked about a couple of them in my anxiety article. But to summarize:

  1. Meditation is huge. Some kind of meditation where you feel the anxiety and let it unravel to see the emotion behind it. Sometimes it goes deeper than one level. But it requires you to look at your anxiety with curiosity and compassion instead of fear.
  2. Self-hypnosis is similar to meditation with a slightly different script. In an early session I confronted my anxiety as if it was a physical being inside my body. I asked it what it needed and I immediately felt the answer.
  3. Stoicism, especially the concept of Amor Fati. Remember that no matter what happens, it is beneficial. If your anxiety goes away that’s good. If it doesn’t and you learn something that’s also good.

Lots of days I don’t feel like doing these things. Lots of days I just want to take the easy route or hit snooze (some days I still do, I’m not perfect). But since doing these things I’ve lost weight, I’m feeling better and am more motivated than ever to be a better person. I feel less anxiety than ever and the anxiety I do feel is much less severe. For days that I really need an extra boost I just remember these words from one of the baddest dudes on the planet: