If you’ve ever found yourself replacing one compulsive habit or addiction for another, you are not alone! When giving up a compulsive behavior or addiction, it’s human nature to try to manage and control the emotional pain that will inevitably come up.
Consider this: A person in eating disorder recovery
focuses on completing their meal plan or interrupting exercise. At the same time, their shopping habits may increase, or they may start spending more time on the internet. When a maladaptive behavior is challenged, another one may pop up.
We even have examples of this in the physical realm. If I have a headache, I can take Tylenol to control the pain. This will allow me to continue to work on that important project for school or the big presentation for work. This may work in the short term as occasional use of Tylenol to manage a headache comes with few negative consequences.
If “getting rid of pain to move toward things we care about” works in the physical realm. It should work in the emotional realm, too, right? For example, if we just get rid of the anxiety, the loneliness and the regret — then we can move towards the things we value like school, career and relationships. Unfortunately, when we apply this same strategy to emotional pain, it tends to create more suffering. Similarly, a reliance on too much pain medication can
have side effects and negative health consequences.
We hope for a "quick fix"
As humans, we look for ways to relieve pain, with the belief that if we could just manage the pain temporarily, we could invest in other things that enrich our lives.
We have likely tried many ways to “fix” emotional pain. We might have even learned along the way that if we just get the good grades or make the soccer team or excel in our career, we can avoid the painful feelings of regret, inadequacy and shame. And if a little bit of this stuff is good, more must be better.
We then think we must become the Valedictorian or the BEST soccer player or get the ULTIMATE promotion. Then and only then will we finally be free of all the pain that gets in the way.
We humans avoid and control pain in many ways. Some of us find escape in consuming food or restricting food. Some of us find it in exercise. Some of us find it in that all too frequent Netflix marathon. Some of us find it in a substance or many substances.
Some of us find it in overworking, exercising, isolating, shopping or gambling. The list goes on.
When running from the pain doesn’t work in a long-term kind of way, we tend to start upping the ante. If the promotion isn’t going to fix that emotional pain, maybe food will or maybe exercise will or maybe substances will. This cycle is tricky because let’s be real, the food works! The exercise works! The substance works!
That is… they work temporarily. But the pain comes back and the inner critic starts rambling again.
Identifying and following our values
So how can we more effectively manage our pain in a way that allows us to connect to a more rich, meaningful life?
We believe that recovery strengthens when individuals focus on creating lives guided by their values.
- What if, instead of focusing on the ways to make the pain go away, our focus was on something bigger?
- What if, instead of focusing on “how can I prove myself” our focus was on “what am I passionate about”?
- What if, instead of focusing on our perceived problems, our focus was on “what things make my life richer and more meaningful?”
Recovery then becomes so much more than completing a meal plan or interrupting exercise or abstaining from substances. Recovery becomes about living a life you are passionate about, connecting to your authentic self and your relationships fully — even in the midst of sometimes painful emotions.
In the Addictions Recovery Track at ERC/Insight, we do just that. We identify the various forms of emotional avoidance that keep us stuck (shopping, gambling, internet, food, exercise, substance) and we practice tools to help people manage our emotional pain differently. We learn to connect (or re-connect) to those things that make sobriety and recovery more meaningful. We begin to identify how to move in a values-driven direction
even if that means being present with some emotional pain in the process.
We learn how to be with our pain differently because it means being a full human being so that we can connect even more to our passion, vitality and freedom.
To put down all those things that have taken hold is no easy task.
To challenge the belief that we need to make our pain go away before we can pursue all the things we care about, is difficult.
However, if we can find a way to truly connect to the things we care about, it makes the journey toward sobriety and recovery a much more rewarding one. We aren’t simply interrupting behaviors or abstaining from substances. We are freeing ourselves from the constant pursuit to avoid painful emotions and reconnecting to those things we truly care about.
This is sobriety. This is recovery.
Authored by Eating Recovery Center’s ART Leadership Committee:
- Linda Lewaniak, LCSW, CAADC: Senior Director of Clinical Operations and Integrated Services
- Leah Young, LCPC: Clinical Manager, Addiction Recovery Track
- Amber Herring, LMFT, LAC: Addictions Recovery Track Therapist in Denver