August 26, 2002
When an organism is overwhelmed by too much sensation or the pain of abuse or neglect, it has ways of shutting down or blocking the pain to protect itself from damage and systemic rupture. It is like blowing a fuse to protect the wiring of a house from an electrical surge. Fainting is a simple example of this.
We are like rivers. If too much water (sensation or pain) rushes down the river, we have a way of opening up overflow gates and directing the excess water into special flood ponds. The intention of this system is to recover balance by releasing the excess water back into the river when the water levels drop in the main channel.
The intention of this system is to recover balance by releasing the excess water back into the river when the water levels (stress levels) drop in the main channel.
In some cases, however, stress levels don't drop and even more abuse and neglect are injected into us. This can cause our whole emotional landscape to be thrown off balance. We begin to exist in a chronic state of avoidance known as emotional illness or neurosis.
To use the example of the river, if the destructive torrents are frequent and unpredictable, the "gate keepers" are afraid to "open up" the gates to allow the flood waters (feelings) to exit back into the river. They continue to hold it in Their ability to predict (trust) is gone, and even when conditions are favorable, they continue to avoid opening up.
In the early days of primal therapy, therapists like Arthur Janov believed that neurotics would never relinquish their defensive avoidance without overt therapist confrontation. Since then, many therapists have discovered that confrontation can be destabilizing, and that an environment of continued safety will allow the client to gradually trust and open up. I outline this in the three-part series on Safety.
There are situations, however, when even extended conditions of safety will not shift the pattern of avoidance. Some people have had their trust so severely shattered (often by early events they cannot remember) that their requirements for safety cannot be met even by the most benevolent therapist. Since it is, after all, a changeable and unpredictable world, these people often manage to find reasons to doubt and avoid.
In the August 19, 2002, Thought of the Week, "Acting Out: Recognizing the Problem," I state that the first step in healing is to recognize that there is a problem. The second step is to take responsibility for the problem by enaging in the healing process. This, in itself, is the reverse of avoidance - we can no longer avoid the pain of our condition. Safety or no safety, we feel there is only one way out - facing the pain and going through it to the other side.
Unfortunately, facing the pain is easier said than done, and chronic avoidance takes many forms. The most overt form of avoidance can be seen in phobic reactions. People with phobias avoid situations that trigger their fear and discomfort. Their lives are filled with elaborate rituals and schemes to control and stay away from whatever they think is dangerous - enclosed spaces, the outdoors, the dark, spiders, social situations, etc. Anything can become a phobia, but there have been some attempts to categorize them, and the website "Phobia List" is an eye-opening reference.
Phobias are characterized by fear, and that fear can be extended to therapy and the therapist. If the therapist has done everything possible to create safety, but the client is still stuck in his fearful projections, the therapist must appeal to the client to continually check reality with himself and others. When the client recognizes that he is truly stuck in his own projection, he may take small steps toward facing and primally connecting with the traumatic origins of his fear.
Deep fear can also be avoided by its opposite - anger. One of the most troublesome forms of avoidance occurs when the client obsessively criticizes and finds fault with the therapist and the process. A responsible therapist wants clients to be cautious, to create healthy boundaries, and to express all emotions, including critical anger. It is irresponsible for a therapist to ask for blind trust, since there are so many professional authority figures who abuse this very trust. But if the client continually blocks healing by blaming everything, they create an impenetrable wall to recognition and healing.
In primal, we attempt to face feelings, and criticism is connected to many feelings. A responsible therapist will continually remind clients that it is correct primal process to check out the feelings underneath their criticism and anger, and if necessary, find another facilitator to assist them. But if clients will not look at those feelings, then they have, for various reasons, said "no" to therapy.
Avoidance also appears when clients continually block or refuse any therapist input or suggestion. In these situations, any offer by the therapist, no matter how non-directive, is perceived as an interruption or criticism of what the client is doing (or not doing). This blocking interrupts the natural teamwork of the process. If clients refuse to look at the feelings associated with this (often a projection of excessive parental control) then they are refusing the primal process and may remain in the isolated emotional limbo they felt as a child.
Sometimes patience and continued support offered by the therapist will allow patterns of avoidance to change - if the client does not abandon the process first.
It is a shame that we carry the pain that we do, but nature makes it clear that stored pain will not go away unless it is dealt with. As we all know, pain that is swept under the rug does not go away, and as we get older, our ability to fend it off only gets weaker. The flooded plains will not disappear. Avoidance only keeps us ill.