I really don’t like feeling bad, all all, any time. I can see in myself a strong rejection of any unpleasant feelings. Who does want to feel bad right? In response to this I have noticed in myself a range of increasingly sophisticated avoidant behaviors. Like for example, if I have some nasty “low energy” emotions like, anxiety, shame or sadness, I will quickly apply some newly learnt personal development tool. It may be a truth coach that has helped me in the past like, “I’m not responsible for other’s emotions” or the idea that “I’m suffering for a greater cause and will be rewarded for it later”. Although applied appropriately these mantras can be very effective for healing and transformation, used mindlessly they can become a form of denial and hinder the process of growth we all desire.
I am slowly learning that real personal development is hard work, and requires me to stop avoiding emotional pain and start having a conversation with it.
Emotions really are important. They are the messengers of the soul, carrying with them great personal insight and truth. Therefore any behavior that helps you suppress or avoid these messengers, is ultimately harmful to growth. Just as physical pain is warning you that part of your body is damaged or sick, emotional pain is telling you that part of your mind/spiritual life is damaged or sick. Imagine ignoring the pain from a broken arm for example. Your fore arm bone is fractured, and the arm is throbbing with pain, but you hate pain so much. You may think to yourself, “why do I have to feel this throbbing pain, I wish it would just go away”. You may take some pain relief and as the pain recedes and you will try to carry on with your day best you can. Never mind that your arm is twisted and bruised and totally useless now!
Emotional denial is exactly the same. No one in their right mind would avoid getting a broken arm looked at by a doctor, but we are perfectly happy to continue to avoid deep emotional distress year after year without getting help. Two area’s of my personal development journey that I have recognised as avoidant are; the use of spiritual tradition to “push all good to heaven” or another name for it is endurism, and the misuse of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to quickly dodge emotional “bullets”.
Let me explain each in turn..
Sadhguru introduced me to the concept of “pushing all good to heaven”. As a Christian I instantly recognised this subtle form of denial in myself. Many spiritual traditions; New age, Christian, Islamic, Hinduism, promise a future reward for present suffering. When we are suffering, we are often comforted by this broad reassurance that any suffering we are experiencing is “Gods will” and that if we endure, we will be rewarded in a future alternative reality. This takes the form of the next reincarnation, or heaven or paradise to name a few. This form of endurism does offer a great deal of comfort to the believer at the time, but from my personal experience it’s can be just a form of denial of the real issue.
In my opinion our spiritual development would be much better served if we would just allow the suffering to speak to us right here and now. To place the blame on God for suffering or worse the devil, and then to tell ourselves that the solution is to just endure while we wait for heaven, is only going to make us into victims. We become victims of God, or the universe or others. The term martyr is very appropriate term for this subtle form of denial. If you would stop pushing good to heaven and start allowing the suffering to form a heaven on earth, your personal growth would be much better served. This form of martyrdom only leaves you powerless to change.
The second way I have used personal development techniques to avoid real work is a misuse of CBT. CBT has been one of my greatest discoveries in the last decade. I was so liberated by the realisation that my emotions are formed by my thoughts. As a sufferer from chronic anxiety for the first 35 years of my life, I clung to this revelation. I would say CBT has cured my anxiety for the most, but it has also become a subtle form of emotional denial. I have caught myself using truth, mindlessly.
In my experience, whenever a new insight becomes stale, it is because I have misused it too many times. I’ll give you a personal example to help you see what I mean by stale. As a people pleaser with very poor boundaries, I discovered the idea that I was not responsible for other people’s emotions, particularly helpful in curing social anxiety. If I had sensed displeasure in others, I would reassure the rising anxiety with this very helpful truth. Yes, I wasn’t responsible for other people’s feelings, yes I only have power over my responses. These ideas are very true and have been healing for me and helped me establish healthy boundaries. What I did discover over time though, was that this statement had become an automatic response to any form of social anxiety. Maybe I had been offensive or arrogant in a social interaction and rather than allowing my emotions to teach me in that moment, I would run from them with the trite truth coach, “well I’m not responsible for their feelings”.
In both examples, I would have been much better served to sit with the feelings. When we sit with these unpleasant emotions, with presence, and ask them to instruct us in this new, unique situation we become the student once again. What was this unpleasant feeling exactly? What is it saying to me right now? Was that truth? In these moments of presence with suffering we open ourselves to discover some new, deeper insight into our unhealthy habits. Any form of denial will hinder growth and ultimately joy. I am starting to realise that the short term gains I get from denial are not worth to loss of precious, personal insight, that could have had real benefits for my growth and health. If I can start to listen to my emotions, be truly present with them and learn from them, then I open myself to a wealth of personal insight that enable me to experience even deeper healing and growth.
There are so many ways we avoid real growth through denial, and personal development teachings can become one of them. I would encourage you to learn the art of suffering. Suffering offers so much insight and growth, so let’s not run from it but rather commune with it. Allow suffering to teach you it’s lessons and then from this small death you will experience true resurrection of life. I love personal development as much as anyone but from time to time I need to ask myself the question, is personal development helping me avoid the real issue?
If this article has got you thinking about your own personal development journey, I am also offering a free 45 minute, online, mentor session. In these sessions I listen to your personal journey and help you sit with and learn from the lessons buried in the pain. These sessions are no obligation and are often powerful transformative processes. Click the link above to book a session or message me.