Barriers to recovery: suppressed pain
Suppressed pain: submerging the intolerable and denying our experiences
“Hey, it’s not so bad.”
When we ask ourselves, “Why am I killing myself with alcohol and drugs?”, it’s a question many are unable or unwilling to explore: The answers are either buried deep or too intolerable to address. When coupled with addiction, our pain only intensifies, with suppressed pain being the primary reason affluent people who actually want to recover relapse repeatedly.
Growing up in families of wealth, power, or prominence, the outside world perceives us as fortunate, equating good fortune with an easy and contented life, far superior to the other 99%. We were raised to believe happiness meant avoiding pain. With money and means, we can limit suffering, keep up appearances, and avoid embarrassing situations. The art of living then becomes the art of learning to suppress and deny negative experiences. When coupled with addiction-based denial, it becomes a double-edged sword too painful to touch.
Undermining our assumptions
Years ago, I joined a support group for adults from wealthy families. Many of us were suffering and uncomfortable, but we couldn’t identify why. Only when candidly speaking with one another did we discover common childhood experiences that undermined our assumption that being born into affluence guaranteed happiness and satisfaction. Later in life when I went to treatment, these insights helped me dig deeper and examine what was driving my addiction – an essential task to achieve sobriety.
Addictive behaviors inevitably are rooted in suppression or avoidance of pain. Even when we do recognize things aren’t right, it’s so much is easier to gloss them over with a drink or drug than do anything to resolve them. Unfortunately, the treatment community offers little in the way of expertise or rapport in supporting us as we pursue feelings relating to difficult childhoods and – too often – trauma. Because understanding and exploring suppressed pain is so critical to our recovery, this blog will discuss its meaning and manifestation, saving its impact on treatment and recovery for next time.
What does suppressed pain mean?
Events and experiences that hurt us and are submerged into our subconscious, denied, or reinterpreted.
Repressed pain comes from experiences that are too intolerable to hold in our consciousness. Examples:
- Absent, perfectionistic, and critical parenting.
- The child as the parent’s primary emotional relationship (i.e., becoming the love or hate object of a parent).
Denied pain comes from events we reinterpret so as to change their meaning. Examples:
- “We had it so much better than others, we don’t deserve to complain.”
- “When the going gets tough, we keep a stiff upper lip.”
- “They invited me to dinner because they like my company, even if they do want a donation.”
- Not speaking up when negative comments are made about the wealthy to be “nice,” when we’re actually afraid of confrontation or feel we “deserve it.”
We’re constantly told how wonderful and important our family is that it’s hard to fathom we might suffer from neglectful and misdirected parenting. By denying or suppressing painful experiences, we internalize negative messages about ourselves or our families.
Our childhood reality
Negative messages about us or our families
- Children hear these messages more often than parents because saying them to us is safer than directly attacking the source of the resentment.
Parental pressure to be perfect
- The object of parenting is to turn out the perfect child, with no infraction too minor to overlook.
- We are expected to follow in the footsteps of previous generations.
- An overly-critical environment leads to an internalized sense of never being good enough.
The molded child
- If we accept the role of the molded child, all aspects of our life are directed by others. (Often money is the carrot.)
- We fear leaving this protected environment. We have no idea of who are apart from our parents and little insight into our lost self.
Parents relate to us on their terms and ignore our wishes
- We learn to deny our own feelings. “What I feel doesn’t matter.”
- This leads to low self-worth, particularly when we see our parents being attentive to others, like servants or social friends, or spending time on philanthropic events. “Why don’t our parents have time for us?”
Parents absent, raised by servants
- We feel abandoned. This leads to detachment and inability to connect with others. “A sense of observing ourselves participating in life, rather than feeling present.”
Turnover of (hired) primary care giver
- This inconsistency leads to lack of trust and feelings of powerlessness, resulting in both abandonment and furthering the detachment generated by parental absence.
- Our closest relationship is often with our nanny, not our mother. “The only time my heart was broken was when my Nana left.”
Parents confuse being present in the home with having a relationship with children
- We experience a lot of isolation and insecure feelings, even around siblings or the extended family (i.e., anxiety, a sense of unease, “an acute sense of loneliness”).
The awareness of us versus them
- We notice the real differences between us and others, in contrast to the egalitarian principles learned at school and religious institutions.
- We observe, but do not understand why. Many of us adopt the belief we truly are superior in order to reconcile the reality of differences. Others try desperately to fit in.
- In either case, the feeling of separateness is in the driver’s seat.
Above all, we grow up learning that it almost impossible to act on our own beliefs, if our beliefs differ from our parents’, because of internalized messages and a “system” designed to foster dependence, not independence.
Our adult reality
As we mature, we realize our lives aren’t any better than others. In fact, they’re worse in many ways because we are different from our friends; our parents aren’t around; and we’re pressured and expected to excel. As we think back on our childhood, we become increasingly aware as to how our upbringing impacts our lives and behaviors as adults:
Longing for a normal life
We often long for “normalcy,” but don’t know healthy ways to achieve it or quell the underlying feeling that something is wrong. Because we don’t know our own needs, it is easy to be misled, duped, exploited, and a “people pleaser.”
Problems? What problems?
We may actually want to stop or cut back, but without our reliable “friend” to keep our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings from surfacing, we continue on until we believe we can’t live without using. Life becomes intolerable without alcohol and drugs, but unresolved pain drives our addiction and our relapses.
Living in a cocoon
By minimizing our experiences and telling ourselves it was “not that bad,” we deny reality. And by deliberately ignoring or suppressing our reality, we lose the ability to learn information about our lives, including our drinking or use. Our feedback mechanism is defective, and people who are honest with us are replaced or ignored.
Money and resources to the rescue
Shopping, spending, sex, and other peak- or adrenaline-driven activities can be just as useful to avoid pain. All are interchangeable, and when drugs and alcohol become a problem, do we realize how pervasive pain avoidance has become? When the going gets tough, we spend money. And why not? Without understanding the connection between money and addiction, recovery is a fantasy.
Who can help us?
In moments of clarity, we have all these feelings we want to try to identify and talk about. But with whom? Who understands us or can help us gain insight and perspective? Who will be respectful of our experiences and not exploit us?
Here’s the bottom line: Without insight, we tend to reenact the struggles of our parents, even though we often vow not to – leading to our own dysfunctional lives. The same rejection and abandonment issues that create the drive for fame and wealth in the family founder can replay themselves in their offspring – leading to their need to be significant in their own right.
Pain as a source of information
We are taught from day one to learn to treat pain as a negative, rather than a source of information. A healthy attitude toward pain recognizes that pain is the soul crying out for help or the body crying out for attention. If we didn’t have physical pain, we wouldn’t know when our bodies are in grave danger.
Certainly, having discomfort gets our attention, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But for us addicts, alcohol and drugs are the reliable friend who is always there for us. And we prefer our “friend” over connection to aliveness. The consequence of our double denial is living an unconscious life, not understanding what life is about, not taking care of ourselves, and not listening to the data from our own life.
This all may seem bleak, but it’s our reality – a reality that we can change by understanding how suppressed pain impacts recovery and how a healthy attitude toward pain treats it as an opportunity to improve our lives. Don’t stress out too much; help is on the way in Part II.