It wasn’t until I overcame my drinking habit that I saw how much I was using alcohol to numb difficult emotions and hide away from pain. When I was in the thick of it, though no one would have known it since I was a very “functional” drinker, I was seeking out booze every time I wanted to stop feeling the way I was feeling at that moment. Frustration, anger, bone-deep exhaustion, social anxiety, stress, loneliness, hopelessness. I wasn’t aware in the moment that I was feeling such an array of emotions. I only knew that I didn’t like how I felt and that a quick fix was just a cork-pop away.
Looking back now, I realize that it was years of conditioning throughout my teens and young adulthood that taught me this trick: that alcohol is not just a topical cleanser for the residue of life. It could also rinse away my inner turmoil. At least, it could temporarily.
It is SO normal to want to avoid pain. I mean, our survival basically depends on it. If we weren’t averse to pain and suffering we would find ourselves in dangerous situations at every turn, like toddlers being let loose in a construction site. Our brains are highly evolved to help us avoid the things that cause suffering and learn from past experiences that brought us pain. And so, as we move through life we learn the most efficient way to bypass painful experiences and eventually learn how to progress through life unscathed. Except, this isn’t really how life works. No one is immune to pain. No one can live a life with no mistakes or suffering. And if there’s anyone who has successfully done so, I would argue they haven’t really lived.
At a certain point, we learn coping mechanisms to avoid pain or at least dull its sting. As children we are unable to fully understand or find meaning in pain. All we know is that it must be avoided. We are small, vulnerable, and greatly powerless to the workings of the world. If we are brought up in a supportive, loving environment, then we learn that the world is basically a safe place and we can look to our parents for help when in need. As we get older we learn skills and gain confidence in our ability to navigate struggles and overcome suffering. We learn tools and techniques (some helpful, some less so) that help us avoid the ache of the pain that life brings. If, however, we were brought up in an unsafe or unstable environment, where the adults around us weren’t able to protect us from pain and suffering, we learn very early on that the world is not a safe place, and we must do whatever we can to survive. We learn at an early age the coping mechanisms necessary to protect ourselves, and these we will likely carry into adulthood like a war-weary armor.
I was raised in a stable and safe environment, with parents that would protect me and teach me skills to navigate the complexities of the world. I grew up believing the world was and is indeed safe, that people are innately good, and that given enough hard work and effort on my end, I would succeed in life and the world wouldn’t conspire against me.
So, you would think that I would be fully prepared to deal with life as an adult, right? I wish it were so easy. Life, as Buddhists believe, IS suffering. No matter how privileged and protected of an upbringing we had, no one can be forever protected from the unexpected, uncomfortable, and challenging twists and turns of life. As a young adult, I dove into challenges and took risks, greatly due to the belief I built as a child that the world is generally safe and risks result in gains. I traveled to and lived in foreign countries alone, took on jobs I had no idea how to do, and packed up my life to begin graduate school halfway across the country where I knew no one and had little local support.
I tell you this because it was around this time, in my mid-20s, that I began to pick up the daily habit of drinking. It was a quick and fun way to numb the stress of my studies, to fill the emptiness of being alone in a community far away from home, and to fortify my insecurities about the direction I was taking in my life, forging an unknown path all by myself. I learned, without realizing it, that these feelings could be put off for another time (a time that I never allowed to come) and I wouldn’t have to feel them or face them in that moment. But by doing this I never allowed myself the time, quietude, and insight to clear my mind and just SIT with the pain and discomfort of life, because there was ALWAYS the option to drink now, and feel later.
Brook Castillo calls this “buffering.” Like that spinning thing your computer does when it is loading a page when your WiFi connection is slow? Yeah, that. SO annoying, right? Or when you invite a friend out for a drink and they never get back to you with a yes or a no…just three dots and then…silence? That’s buffering. Buffering means delaying the moment we have to face that difficult decision, feel that pain, decide to take one direction over another and forever change the unfolding of our life.
We get REALLY good at buffering as we get older, take on more responsibilities, and have to make more and more decisions we don’t feel prepared to make. We find ways to delay the point at which we have to say YES or NO. We stockpile items in our online shopping carts, uncertain when we are ready to make the purchase. We never RSVP to that toddler party because we can’t admit to ourselves we just don’t want to go. So we never respond.
Through this we learn to buffer the pain that these moments bring up. We use the same old tools we learned as children to avoid pain, because it worked for us then. It helped us out of a pinch. We needed it then to survive. As adults, we just find more sophisticated ways of buffering. We overspend. We binge on food. We seek out the instant pleasure to get that dopamine hit, knowing that it’ll make us feel good immediately, regardless of how long that good feeling will last or how hard the crash will be later on.
If you’re anything like me just a year ago, you drink all of the time. I would argue that alcohol is the most popular numbing agent because it is easy, quick, and completely socially acceptable. No one questions your desire to have a mimosa at breakfast or a beer (or 4) after work. Because we all do it.
But what we are doing is simply delaying the pain that we inevitably must feel and process to move forward in life, because life IS suffering. Life is discomfort. Life is hard. And instead of facing it, feeling it, processing it, and understanding it, we numb it, delay it, and silence it with booze.
Pain now or later?
What’s the problem with this, you might ask? Well, there’s a difference between feeling pain now and waiting to feel it later. Delaying the pain doesn’t make it go away. Instead, it allows it to grow. Say you drink a bottle of wine every night after work after you cook dinner and get the kids to bed. You sit next to your partner in bed watching TV, but you two don’t really talk or connect. The day’s frustrations, stress, irritations all go un-discussed. You don’t want to face any of it just yet. You just want to drink and relax. However, there are things you need to talk about with your partner (that medical bill that needs paying, preparing for the upcoming vacation, figuring out why he’s been giving you the cold shoulder the past few days…) but you don’t talk about it…you just keep drinking.
A week later, 7 days and 7 wine bottles later, none of those things have been resolved. In fact, your stress is just as bad if not worse because you haven’t figured out how to pay that medical bill and now it has gone to collections. You haven’t figured out how you’ll pay for the trip you’ve already committed to. And your husband is now giving you the silent treatment. The things that you could have attempted to address last week when they were less intense have now spiraled into bigger issues, all the while you’ve been numbing your pain and discomfort with wine…but those things still fester…waiting for you to face up to them.
Do you see how that pain from a week ago is different from the pain you will have to face now? If you had faced the discomfort a week ago, it may have been a bit easier to talk with your husband without the silent resentment he’s been feeling all week standing between you two. That medical bill would have been much cheaper and easier to pay before going to collections. Etc, etc.
The point is, facing pain NOW is usually going to be easier than putting it off to face another day. It may require that you face the issue when you don’t feel emotionally prepared. But it also means you probably won’t be any better prepared later on either. When you face your pain immediately, presently, mindfully, you prohibit that pain from festering into an infection. You process it, find a solution, and move forward in life stronger and a bit wiser. When you buffer and avoid, you only make it harder to overcome the issue later on.
Experiencing it all
For so long I allowed alcohol to numb me, to be my buffering agent as I hid from the pain of reality. But all that did was make my life really small. When you stop buffering you allow yourself to face the challenge, grow from it, and expand your life. When you allow yourself to embrace the discomfort now, you learn just how strong you can be, and your world expands. You realize you CAN face hard things without the numbing agent of alcohol (or whatever substance you prefer). And that next challenge you face won’t be nearly as scary, as you are armed with the knowledge that you can overcome it right here and right now.
You also open up your life to the possibility of feeling the full array of emotions, not just the difficult or uncomfortable ones. When you allow in those hard feelings, you also let in all the other ones – love, connection, joy, awe, inspiration. We can’t selectively numb just the emotions we don’t like. Alcohol numbs us from ALL the emotions, making our lives small, uninteresting, muted.
How to Face the Pain
Here are some tips for starting the process of allowing the pain instead of numbing it. These are mostly taken from Brook Castillo’s podcast, I am very grateful for her thoughtful expertise on this topic. I have added a few of my own thoughts and suggestions, too.
Create a System
Create a system for recognizing when you’re delaying/denying pain. This is the hardest part but THE most important. We are so accustomed to ignoring our pain that we don’t realize when it occurs. And if we can’t recognize and slow down this automatic process, we can’t change it. This takes practice and mindfulness.
So, here’s your homework: starting RIGHT NOW think back through the last HOUR of your day. Were there moments you felt discomfort or pain? Bring them to mind. Take a quick note of them.
- What did they feel like in your body?
- Where did you feel that discomfort in your body?
- Write down the physical sensation you felt when that emotion came to mind.
- Then, write down what you did IMMEDIATELY after feeling that pain or discomfort.
- Did you reach for your phone? Eat some candy? Make plans to meet with a friend at the bar? Snap at your husband?
Forget your judgment, just write it down. Now, set an alarm for the same time tomorrow as when you are doing this now. When that alarm goes off, do these steps again. Do this for a week. See if it gets any easier to start recognizing how you are delaying your pain in your life.
Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow
Stop thinking of pain as a problem to be solved: THIS is what causes so much of our extended suffering. The Buddhists talk about it like this: there are two arrows that cause suffering in life. The first arrow is the one we can’t control. It is the pain of the loss of a loved one. The struggle to make ends meet and get out of debt. The anxiety of not knowing …. Not knowing ANYTHING that is to come in the future. It is the pain that comes with just being human. We cannot stop this arrow from landing on us and piercing our hearts. This is life. This is our burden to bear as humans.
Then there’s arrow number 2. This arrow represents the pain that we cause ourselves after that first arrow lands. It the pain we cause by THINKING about the pain, asking ourselves how we could have prevented it, how we can make it feel less painful, how we can run from it, avoid it, end it. It happens when we tell ourselves “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I need to fix this,” “I can’t deal with this.” This is suffering compounded on top of suffering. And unlike the first arrow, this second arrow we have inflicted upon ourselves. And we therefore have control over removing it.
We do this by deciding to stop believing in this idea that pain and suffering are problems that need solving. We replace that belief with the understanding that pain and suffering are simply a part of life and therefore they will come, and they will go, and we need not hold on to them. There is no use in questioning the pain, hold onto it, examining it closely with a magnifying glass. We just need to let it pass. But it can’t pass when we are holding onto it so tightly.
Think about it like this: when we feel happiness, joy, elation, or excitement, do we ask ourselves WHY are we feeling this? Do we tell ourselves “I have this feeling. Let’s look at it, examine it, and fix it” NO, of course we don’t. We welcome these lovely emotions and act like it is our right to have them, feel them, languish in them.
What would happen if we treated sadness, pain, and suffering this way. Simply part of our human experience, nothing more, nothing less. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
If we could allow ourselves this freedom, we would then allow ourselves to avoid the landing of that second arrow, and we could heal more easily from that first arrow. Which brings us to the next step.
Allow the Pain In
Say yes to it. Allow it in. Don’t deny it. Don’t hate it. If we are able to treat our pain and suffering NOT as something to fight or fix, then we are left with the simple option of just ALLOWING it to be. Allowing it in. Not holding onto it like a prize or oddity. Just letting it pass like leaves floating down a stream. No need to grab onto them. Simply see them and watch them pass. They will move along on their own just fine.
Get to Know the Pain
Describe the pain and get familiar with it. By doing this not only are we learning to recognize when these feelings come up (so we stop denying them), we are also depersonalizing it. We are separating from the pain from ourselves so that we do not have to identify AS the pain itself. When we give the pain a name, a sound, a taste, and smell, a feeling, we excise it from our body and separate it from our identity, our self. This is SO freeing. Because once it is something separate from you, you can move past it and leave it behind you.
Begin to Process the Pain
Before you can move past it, you have to process it. You can’t skip over this part. Once you recognize that you must deal with it at some point, you can decide that it might as well be now. Here are some ways to immediately start processing the pain:
- Sit in silence – feel the pain and remember that it is only an emotion. It cannot hurt you anymore than it already has. See it as a passing vibration. Energy moving through you. The more you sit with it, the softer it will become.
- Journal – put your pain into words. Write, write, write. We process pain through words like our body digests food. If you don’t know what to write, write anyway. Here are some journal prompts to get you started.
- Hire a coach or therapist – having another person to listen to you, hold space for you, and see your pain from a compassionate but objective perspective can get you unstuck. Getting someone else’s take on the situation can reframe things for you in ways that you had never thought of before. We get stuck in the same way of seeing things, especially after the passage of time. Being able to bounce ideas off of another person helps you process your beliefs and thoughts, and also lets you see that you may be holding onto old, outdated, and inaccurate beliefs.
Replace the Pain with Compassion
By not fighting the pain, by welcoming it, understanding it, externalizing it, and processing it, you have created an energetic, sacred space. In that space, let the compassion in. Let compassion fill that place where the pain used to fester. Compassion for yourself, for the person you were when you took on that pain, compassion for the pain itself, for all the human circumstances that lead to the pain, and probably the hardest part – compassion for the people that caused the pain. Meditate on the compassion. Tara Brach has some amazing resources for this.
So, next time you’re finding yourself delaying or denying your pain, remember that you no longer have to do that, and that there’s another option. Alcohol (or whatever your habit of choice is) will no longer have the power over you that it once did. I promise you, it will change your experience of life.
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