This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.



Dealing with Emotional Pain

There are clinics for treating physical pain all over the United States, but emotional distress, one of the chief obstacles in the path to a normal existence, is often neglected or treated inappropriately. Everyone, of course, experiences emotional pain at one time or another. Some problems are temporary and specific to a situation; some are chronic and permanent parts of a person's life.


When the topic comes up in a discussion, people suggest ways of feeling better, of making the pain go away. They try to help people feel better and avoid dealing with the causes of the pain. Unfortunately, just feeling better does not solve the problem. Getting at causes, however, may be a matter for intensive psychotherapy.


Transient emotional pain

Many of life's discomforts are caused by current situations. People lose jobs; have fights with loved ones, or experience illness. Such things usually cause temporary emotional pain, but action and time itself tend to heal these wounds. Sometimes, under certain circumstances, we convert transient emotional pain into something more serious and lasting.


Chronic emotional distress

This is the kind of emotional pain that usually begins early in life and continues over long periods. Sometimes it yields to medication, sometimes not. If transient situations are intense and disabling, they can make a long-term difference in our moods, especially if they occur when we are very young or living through very difficult times. If you lose a loved one when you are only six years old, the effects can be lasting and devastating. If you lose a loved one when you're an adult, it's difficult, but most people manage to deal with it and get on with life without personality damage.



Addictions cause distress when financial losses mount and social life deteriorates; abstinence along with work on the Twelve Steps can relieve this transient, temporary, or situational pain. But, when one loses control of addictive behavior in the first place, it is often the result of some deeper, underlying and chronic emotional pain that arose in earlier times and circumstances. When addiction is used to escape chronic emotional pain, abstinence is likely to bring a return and intensification of the distress that was present before using ever started. This is why slips are so common.


The symptoms of chronic emotional pain

Signs of lasting, chronic distress show up as self-defeating thoughts, values, and attitudes. Here are a few samples of irrational, distress-related ideas:

  • I must never show failure
  • The world is a fearful and dangerous place
  • I'm going to make some terrible mistake
  • Being wrong is an unbearable sin
  • Good enough is never good enough
  • I must be perfect
  • I must please everyone
  • No one can be trusted
  • I am better than you and I'll prove it
  • Special people like me deserve special love and respect
  • Criticism is the most painful thing that ever happens to me
  • The world needs me to fix it, lead it, and watch over it
  • If you win, I lose
  • I can't stand people
  • I can't live without people


The list is endless; so, find a little blank piece of paper to write down your own favorite nutty idea, the one that's causing all that pain you wish would go away.


Remote causes of chronic emotional pain

It may not really matter much whether or not we can identify the original causes of life-long chronic distress. The past is the past and can't be changed, and insight alone has little curative effect. The beginning of chronic distress might lie with a drunken, abusive parent. Perhaps you were given unrealistic childhood responsibilities or experienced traumatic events, injuries, neglect, starvation, severe illness, or physical disabilities.  Whatever it was, it left you with an attitude that will be difficult to change.


Unexamined attitudes that cause emotional pain

With chronic, durable emotional pain we usually see a pervasive, underlying mood or feeling-tone that has become part of personality structure. There could be specific fears, general anxiety, rage and anger, suspicion, endless yearning for something just beyond your grasp, profound feelings of inadequacy, flighty and scattered thinking, strong feelings of special entitlement, or general sadness and gloom. Now we are face to face at last with those difficult defects of character the removal of which can be so baffling that we are tempted to think of it as a spiritual experience when it starts to happen.



What to do about emotional pain

Talk about it with the right people. That act, in itself, may be the very last thing you'd ever want to do. Change takes courage. The right people will be little more than ears. They will be therapists, sponsors, or trusted friends who have been through similar experiences or who understand what you are going through. We don't want judgments or advice. We don't really need sympathy, although a little empathy will go a long way. If you can talk about your pain often enough to the right people, the pain will gradually lose its sting. You may learn to laugh at old situations that caused the pain, and eventually you may be able to dismiss it from your life. In addition, of course, working on those Twelve Steps will help.


Living in the Moment  

Many addicts in treatment express frustration when they are told to live one day at a time, to live in the present day and in the present moment. We often make ourselves miserable by going over the coulda/woulda/shoudas from the past, or stewing about the needa/gotta/ haveta's in the future. And so the joy of each passing moment is lost. Regret is not restitution and worry is neither preparation nor planning.



Most addicts are quite ready to admit that using is a very here and now activity, and here lies whatever spiritual aspect there may be in destructive addiction. At least you can temporarily escape yesterday and tomorrow and live only in the moment. The trick will be to find equally compelling in the moment things that are productive and rewarding.



Cleaning the house compulsively is one thing many women and some men do to absorb energy and attention. Is cleaning an escape from depression or a deeply satisfying occupation? It is intrinsically rewarding if you are cleaning the surface of an old master's painting, or the surface of a living tooth. But, washing the car three times every week, or dusting every day - what are you running away from?



Just getting out of the house and driving around often helps a troubled person get back to living in the moment. Many addicted people love to go out and just drive hundreds of miles; the stimuli are always changing and one is absorbed in managing the vehicle.



Our skills can come to our aid if we have any. Can you play the violin, shoot baskets, sing in a group, weave on a loom, fly a plane, handle an angry customer, dance in a crowd? If you don't have any real skill, maybe it's time to go back to school. You can't do a real skill and be anywhere but there as you do it.


Whole body relaxation can be learned and it's rather easy to find a teacher. There are an endless number of books on the self-help shelves to study.


Meditation gets you into the moment, and there are plenty of teachers and books to help.  


Contemplative prayer works for some - not just asking for this and that, but learning to sit quietly and listen for answers.


Listening, in fact, works very well if you can learn not to rehearse what you want to say next or figure out how to attack, embarrass, quiz or out-smart the speaker while he/she is still speaking.


Judging the value of in an in-the-moment activity is easy. If you feel more depressed, anxious or discouraged when you are done with your task, you were probably just using it as an escape; give it up. If you feel refreshed, renewed and fulfilled when you are done with your task, it was most likely a healthy experience. Do it more often.

Bad hangovers are the result of addictive, in-the-moment experiences. Are there good, happy hangovers, do you suppose? Should one try to have a good hangover all the time? Can creative, compassionate living become addictive? Would that be bad?




Service and Selfishness

A Twelve Step Program is a selfish program, but it is a program that helps by asking for service to others. Selfishness and service sometimes seem to be almost incompatible, and the meanings given to these words can be fuzzy. Helping others could be stressful and could create dangerous pressures to escape back to addiction if you fail to put realistic limits on what you do.


Learning when to serve, whom to serve and how to serve are essential parts of recovery. The question: what guidelines can you adopt so that you can set reasonable limits on service to others and, as a result, make life more manageable and you more resistant to relapse?



Selfish service

This, I think, is anything we do for others that needs doing and is doable in terms of our own resources. Selfish service increases our experience and knowledge. You can always tell, I think, when service is selfish because its rewards are greater for the server than to those served. It does not cost more than we can afford, emotionally or financially, and it can promote personal life by allowing one to flourish and grow. We serve best from a position of strength, experience, and knowledge. We serve best when we recognize the limits of service and use it as a tool for personal growth.


Mandated service

When you are drafted into military service, you serve or go to jail. Or, if you are sentenced to community service for some misdemeanor or felony, you are legally mandated to serve as the court directs. These are unusual cases. It makes no sense to say or believe that we must serve in some particular way when we make a voluntary decision to serve. Let's never pretend that something we choose to do is something we must do; this is over-dramatic nonsense, a way of avoiding responsibility for self-management.


Angry service

Legally mandated service can understandably carry an element of anger and resentment, but there is no point in being angry doing what you choose to do in voluntary service to others. If you resent doing what you think you have to do, stop doing it and rethink your motivations. You may be taking on something that is not yours to do, expending resources you do not have, or obligating yourself to responsibilities you will resent later. Terminate the service, get rid of the anger if it is not rational, or expect to relapse soon.


Missionary zeal in service

Sometimes our ideas and values lead us to serve what we think may be an unfortunate individual or group that is too retarded, primitive, uneducated, or unenlightened to share our ideas and values. Ego rears its ugly head and will surely drag you back to using an addictive or worse. Some think that missionaries do much more harm than good to primitive peoples. Let's not be zealots. Offer service if you can, and stop if it not wanted.


Guilty service

Guilt is mostly irrational if it becomes an enduring part of personality. If you grew up being made to feel guilty for not doing more, fix it and learn to shrug. Selfish service is not service to guilt.


Egotistical service

This is like some kinds of missionary service; it is thinking that you know best what others should do. It is feeling superior and feeling obliged to set people straight. Service should probably always await an invitation to serve. To be effective, the person helped should feel like he or she is in control, that what you have to give is helpful, needed, and wanted. Service is about what the person served needs, not about what you want to do.


Emergency service

The law is lenient to good Samaritans. If you can help, for example, at the scene of an accident, you will certainly feel good if you do; hopefully, you will not harbor guilt if things go badly as they sometimes do. Of course, we sometimes blunder if we don't happen to have the proper skills; often, calling an expert for help is the best we can do even if it means further delay. Knowing when to quit is also a service.


Vocational service

This is what jobs are. You are paid and you do what the boss wants done. Some addicts have problems following directions from a boss or supervisor. Don't turn your job into angry or mandated service. Find a different job, or restructure your priorities and values. Don't feel like a victim just for having to work for a living. Resentment will take you back to addiction.


Routine self-service

Personal maintenance and physical self-care are basic and should be guilt-free. Take the time to take care of you.


Harmless service

The first requirement for those who would help others is to do no harm. This means we must study those we want to help carefully to be sure what we offer is harmless, needed, and effective.


Bailout service

Never do for others what they can and should do for themselves. Do not give unearned gifts just to feel good, and do not shelter others from the just consequences of their own misbehavior. These can be very harmful tactics and may promote helplessness and dependence.


Carrying the message

The Twelfth Step says carry the message, not preach it or shove it down the throats of others. Just carry it always and be ready to teach by story and by example when someone seems ready to listen. There are many ways to abstinence; your path may not be the best for others. Tolerance, acceptance, and understanding are essential.


Unconditional service

 In self-help groups, they don't charge for service. Do not sell, bargain, or threaten. Service is given freely and willingly with no strings attached.