Human suffering and human existence are innately intertwined. This fact is addressed in many disciplines, most notably The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism[i]. Without examining what is painful, we cannot fully know reality. It requires courage to feel physical or emotional discomfort, but only when we allow ourselves to feel everything can we move through and beyond suffering.
Let’s examine the suffering in the following situation:
Third-Grade You scarfs down the rest of your lunch as you see your best friend shooting hoops with another kid.
“Hey you guys! Can I play?” you yell as you near the basketball court.
They look at each other before answering.
“We’re playing one-on-one,” your friend says, passing the ball as they dive back into their game.
When you get home from school, you dash into your older brother’s room.
“I learned a magic trick today!” you say, flopping on his bed. “Wanna see?”
Your brother doesn’t look up from his phone. You get out the deck and prepare the trick.
“Pick a card, any card.”
You reach out the deck to your brother, but he swats your hand away, sending the cards scattering to the floor.
“I’m busy, Go away.”
You pick up the cards and head to your room, where you lay on your bed staring up at the ceiling for several minutes, before signing into a video game and losing yourself in a solo quest.
What happened to Little You? What did you need?
Little You glazed over your feelings of rejection. You wanted to be included, and asked for it, accepting your vulnerability. We are all like Little You when we are young, instinctively living from our truthful place without protecting ourselves.
It is when we avoid discomfort, such as the feeling of rejection, that we suffer. The internal reaction to avoid or stop the suffering, whether physical or psychic, leads to more discomfort. It is a natural impulse to stop the pain. In fact, the more we suppress or avoid pain, the more intense the suffering will feel. It can get so bleak that we become blind to our needs, our goals, and, ultimately, our core sense of self.
Conflict avoidance has been called different names in psychology, religion, and pop culture: the shadow, disowned self, id, inner child, inner demons, self-judgment, dark night of the soul, and even midlife crisis. No matter what you call it, conflict avoidance is fear of something. It could be a threat to your survival, your social belonging, or even fear of your own experience, sensations, and emotions.
Is there anything good about being uncomfortable?
This inner torture shows itself to escort you to your true desires. Its presence will recede once you acknowledge it and connect it to your underlying needs. Then, and only then, will clarity appear. Suffering is not to be cast away.
In fact, it’s not possible to be a disembodied being – the body is an integral part of knowing that you are alive. An embodied sense of "even though my heart hurts or my body feels pain, I am here. I am alive, I exist" gently and naturally ushers you from fear to empowerment to clarity.
The neurobiology of inner conflict
Our brain is wired to avoid conflict and seek safety, stability, and homeostasis. Neurobiologically, we all fall on a continuum of conflict avoidance from discomfort to phobia, depending on our childhood lessons. What our parents model gets physiologically coded as “right” and “good” or “wrong” and “bad” and in turn directs your actions, choices, and thoughts. What happens to us experientially as we grow up further influences how we define our emotions.
If whenever you made mistakes your parents spoke to you kindly in a soft voice, you would have learned that you are not defined by your mistakes.
Away from your parents, if you had an accident, witnessed or experienced violence or bullying, were marginalized or othered, your more primitive brain centers responsible for survival, sensations, and emotions would have registered danger and developed a defense mechanism, instructing your nervous system to avoid feelings that trigger similar discomfort or pain. Emotional-phobia is a fear of experiencing your own emotions, as well as others’. Whatever you have labeled “uncomfortable,” “negative,” or “unbearable” will determine what you avoid and what you move toward.
Why is it scary to explore your feelings?
Since your brain is wired to keep you safe, it directs you to avoid that which is unpleasant. You can’t help it; you’re programed to do so.
When you experience even the slightest discomfort, a negative feedback loop takes over: negative emotions lead to suffering, which leads to self-judgment, which leads back to negative emotions, and the vicious cycle sets in. Eventually, it becomes easier psychologically to prevent all anticipated discomfort rather than examine with self-awareness what you are experiencing.
Back to You … As You grew up learning to protect yourself this way, it became a way of relating:
Big You, now 28, brings your girlfriend to your mom’s house for lunch. She has met your mom a few times, but this is a special occasion: your birthday.
The conversation flows easily as you all discuss your girlfriend’s job working for a tech start-up and what vegetables are growing in your mom’s garden.
The energy shifts when your mom asks if you and your girlfriend have considered moving in together.
“Ha,” your girlfriend says, as she rolls her eyes.
You chuckle and ask, “Is there any more lemonade?”
Your mom hops up to get you another glass and launches into a long story about how the lemon tree didn’t produce much this year. “We think it was the drought…”
Was Big You uncomfortable? About what?
Little You ignored your feelings of being hurt and disappointed. You didn’t feel safe saying how you felt, not even to yourself. Over time, your needs receded further and further until you weren’t even aware of them yourself. Ignoring your feelings carried over into adulthood as a default reaction whenever you felt uncomfortable.
Big You avoided your discomfort about your girlfriend’s non-verbal snipe (which is her way of avoiding being direct) by laughing and engaging your mother. In doing so, you displaced your need for kindness and connection with a request for lemonade.
What did Big You Need?
Big You was excited to share your commitment to your girlfriend with your mother. You wanted and expected that feeling to be reciprocated and expressed. You were blindsided by your girlfriend’s reaction, which severed your sense of belonging. You have no control over how your girlfriend behaves or how your mother will react. This is what vulnerability feels like, and where courage is required. The first thing Big You needed to do is to allow yourself to feel the shock of your girlfriend’s put-down. You could have asked her, “What do you mean by ‘ha,’ honey?” Courage, again.
Do you restrict yourself by presenting as “the good girl” or “the nice man”? What is your internal editing system saying “no” to? In the hypothetical, what made Big You chuckle instead of clarifying your mate’s message? These questions all lead to the larger issue that:
Humans are clever avoiders and there are many styles of conflict avoidance. Can you recognize yourself?
If you’ve learned to vault your vulnerable emotions, you need to break into the safe. You’ll have to invite the kind, gentle, fierce warrior in you to stay with your discomfort long enough to go from uncomfortable to aware of your needs.
[i] The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:
1. Suffering exists.
2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires.
3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases.
4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path is:
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[ii] See John Gottman’s Four Horsemen: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/