written by: Kosjenka Muk
Did you ever keep quiet out of fear rather than stand up for yourself? Do you avoid trying something new in front of others out of fear to look foolish? Do you even avoid expressing love to your family because you fear emotional “weakness”?
Avoiding potential emotional pain can make people shallow in the sense of avoiding experience, especially if new or somewhat risky. Every time we avoid new experience, we miss the possibility of learning and acquiring wisdom, as well as a sense of fulfillment in life.
If we are not willing to deal with pain, we’ll seek instant solutions for our problems, whether emotional or problems in relationships. We can trust manipulative promises which offer results without effort, and so spend a lot of money in vain. We may refuse to learn, face challenges and grow step by step.
Such magical “solutions” are not like taking aspirin to control short term headache. They are much more like taking pain killers to avoid toothache; the more we postpone the pain, the worse the problem becomes.
On a more subtle level, some people might even avoid feeling compassion for others, as compassion is sometimes painful. This can lead to hypocrisy, victim blaming and selfishness.
Unwillingness to face potential pain can lead us to try to control our lives way too much, or even to try to control other people and the world. We might be intolerant to other people’s and our own mistakes. We might try to manipulate others so that we don’t have to express ourselves clearly. Trying to avoid pain can, ironically, cause much more pain for both ourselves and others (for example when people abandon or hurt others out of fear of being hurt or abandoned themselves.
The origins of the need to avoid pain
Avoidance of pain has no single cause. Perhaps as a child you experienced so much emotional pain you couldn’t deal with, that you learned to block and suppress your emotions. Some parts of you might not be aware that you are not a child anymore, and such emotions cannot overwhelm you not nearly so easily as they could when you were small.
Perhaps your family taught you by example to try to avoid pain, either through pretending that everything was OK when it wasn’t, or through overprotectiveness and preventing you from facing challenges. If children feel that their parents are afraid of facing emotional pain, such pain gains much more power in their minds than it has in reality.
In patriarchal countries, families and characters, emotions are generally considered a weakness, especially painful emotions. Perhaps in your family out of unpleasant emotions only anger was allowed, while anything else might have caused others to humiliate you – even some pleasant emotions. It’s ironic that what is essentially fearful behavior is presumed to be strength.
Fear of making mistakes
Perhaps you are afraid of making mistakes and of punishment you expect would follow. An imaginary punishment might seem worse than the pain you are familiar with. Some people avoid even a change to the better, even if the price of staying the same is high (such as unhealthy relationships, arguments, anger…). Subconsciously, such a person might associate change with making mistakes – and might perceive mistakes as unforgivable and irreparable. The deep belief is: “I am a bad person if I make mistakes!”
Such beliefs are learned in childhood and carried in a deep subconscious level of our brains. They can be obviously unrealistic; they can cause obvious suffering to us and people around us. Yet if we were strongly conditioned to avoid mistakes, it can feel like a posthypnotic suggestion; we don’t really know why, but we can feel powerless to change our behavior. In some way, this is a posthypnotic suggestion; childhood is a stage of receptiveness and emotional openness, without rational filters which would prevent such ideas to sink into one’s subconscious.
Motivation and courage
Sometimes, pain can be more motivating than anything else in life. It can help us understand other people much better. It can help us recognize what is truly important in life. Sadness can motivate us to seek what is missing in our lives. Even shame and guilt, unpleasant as they are, mean that we have learned something and can do better next time. Growth is almost impossible without some pain. Once you allow yourself to feel that pain, you’ll probably discover it’s much more tolerable than you thought it was.
If you can be supportive of yourself while facing pain, you will build a relationship with yourself which can carry you through all kinds of challenges and should give you courage to face (reasonable) risks. If you are willing to deal with emotionally risky situations, you can open yourself up to experiences that make life worth living. You can end up feeling “on the top of the world” rather than hiding in a cave.