Can we be addicted to negative emotions? Such as outrage, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, guilt or feeling ‘hard done by’?
We normally associate addictions with more or less positive things. Substances and behaviours that make us feel good or better in some way. Alcohol, helps us to relax, or feel happier or intoxicated. Cannabis can help us to chill, calm down or get lost in the music. Amphetamines can makes us feel confident, energised or ‘on top of the world’. Porn can makes us feel powerful, in control and aroused. All these things can help us to forget or distract us from pain, discomfort or relieve stress in some way. So it would make sense that some of us could get ‘addicted’ (attached to if one goes by the old definition of addiction as I discuss in an earlier post Why is the word addiction so controversial?) to these sorts of things. However, it has recently occurred to me that perhaps we can also become addicted to negativity in some way.
You may balk at the suggestion. Anxiety feels awful. Depression is terrible. Why would anyone want to continue with such negative emotions? I guess one needs to look at the pay off. What does one get by continuing with these emotional states that make us feel bad or worse in some way. Or, another way to look at it is, what do you get out of doing by continuing to feed the negative emotion?
Let’s take anxiety as an example. What does anxiety stop you from doing that you might otherwise do. Drive a car? Get a job? What do you get to do by not doing those things…. well you get to avoid the discomfort, fear and the possibility that you may get hurt in some way. You get to feel safe. You get to avoid uncertainty. And you get to avoid having to change. And, ever notice how the more you give in to your anxiety, and the more you allow depression to weigh on you the bigger and heavier they tend to get? It’s as if you are carrying around a heavy load or burden around with you…
Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, spiritual teacher and all round amazing human often talks about the concept of the “pain body“. The concept of the pain body is a strange one to get your head around. It is, according to Tolle, made up of all the slights, painful experiences and unfinished business that you carry around with you in your body, unconsciously. Any painful experience or trauma memory that has not been adequately faced or resolved at the time it occurred becomes part of our pain-body. In a healthy person, it may lay dormant most of the time, but some people live entirely through and completely identify with their “pain-body”.
Your pain-body can be awakened or ‘triggered’ by anything – an event, a person, an argument, a situation. Often it is awakened by something that happens to remind us of a past trauma or event. The current painful event awakens the pain-body and in that moment we become the pain-body. That is, we identify with our pain-body 100%. In ACT we call that “fusion“. Fusion is when we are so caught up in our beliefs, thoughts, memories, or pain that we believe those thoughts and are overwhelmed by the emotion generated that we in a sense, stuck to those thoughts, so much so that we become those thoughts.
The pain-body wants to live, according to Tolle, like any other entity, and it feeds on negativity and pain. And, the more we feed it, the more it wants and the stronger it gets. When we are living through pain, or in our pain-body, it can seem as if everything and everyone is against us. We see the world in terms of black or white, us vs them, good and evil. When we are in pain, we often lash out at others, and want others to be in pain too. We want to be right about our pain and therefor unconsciously seek more pain in order to prove ourselves right about how bad everything really is. The more we live through our pain-body the bigger, stronger and more dominant it becomes.
When we identify 100% with our painful thoughts and memories, we can sometimes act in ways that are unhelpful, hurtful to ourselves and others and are generally unpleasant to be around. We can act in ways that take us further and further away from our goals, values and true self. When we act in the service of our pain-body, we may think that we are doing something about our pain, but we often act in ways that bring us more pain. I am reminded of another famous quote by Eckhart Tolle is,
addiction starts and ends in pain.
We can also become so used to being in our pain-body that we may come to prefer it. We may become more comfortable being angry, depressed or outraged that we no longer remember what it is like to not be those things. In essence, we can become addicted or attached to our pain because for some of us, that is how we identify.
But there is another way to be. When we realise that the only power our pain-body, or our trauma history, has over us is the power we give it then that is the first step towards becoming free of our free-loading pain-bodies. Often in therapy, at some point in time clients often say they feel lighter, more at ease, or as if a weight has been lifted from them. Maybe, this is their pain-body dissolving? It is worth a thought.
A positive affirmation to help dismiss or weaken our own body of painful experiences:
The only power the past has over me is the power I allow it to have.
I allow myself to be free from the past,
I release all pain, resentment and anger,
I am at ease with who I am today,
I am free to be me.