Controlled suffering

Controlled Suffering

How to gently grow into your best life. 

Back in the late 80’s I was involved in some pretty intense personal development trainings. They were great and I learned a lot about myself. 

Over the course of a weekend, people would drop layers and layers of old baggage and have dramatic transformations. They would truly change and it seemed impossible they would ever revert to the way they had been before.
Yet, a month later when we all met up again, it was obvious how much they had reverted.

It is common knowledge that most people who win the lottery, are back where they were financially within a few years.

Why does this happen? 

I have seen this dynamic happen in my own life and the people I do one-to-one work with. It starts with our inner landscape. 

Let us say that in my inner landscape, I have a mountain of shame to the north. To the south, I have the marshes of regret. To the east, are the hills of self-esteem, and to the west, I have the fiery pits of righteous anger.

The structure of my mind prioritizes orientation over content. It prioritizes knowing where everything is over what everything is.
So it prioritizes where my inner mountain is over what it is – a mountain of shame.  

Knowing where everything is allows me to stay sane. It is subtle and unnoticed for the most part, like how you are oriented right now as you read these words. Without thinking about it you know where you are. Regardless of where you are, you know how you got there and where you are in relation to your surroundings, both big and small.

This prioritization of orientation over content comes into force if I change my inner landscape too drastically.

If I go through a cathartic experience and I manage to get rid of my mountain of shame, the change can be so disorienting to my inner landscape that my mind will recreate the mountain of shame very quickly. 

This is not because I want the shame but because the disorientation is too disturbing.

It would be like leaving your house, going to the end of your street, and discovering that what was a T-junction is now a crossroads with a 10 storey building on each corner and all this had changed overnight!
Can you imagine how disorienting that would be?

When we make a drastic change on the inside, whether good or bad, the pull to return to the way we were before is intense because if we become too disoriented on the inside we run the risk of losing our mind.

The same principle applies to smaller changes and the effects can be more subtle. 

I have a friend, for example, who has a pattern of chaos leading up to going on holiday. The days before going on holiday are always stressful and fraught. Things go wrong, wheels fall off, literally, unexpected bills appear, and then disappear.

In their inner landscape, they have a valley of unrelenting hard work. There is a holiday island but it can only be reached by a hazardous and punishing path. The chaos they go through leading up to the holidays keep them sane.
Not happy – sane.

I know another person who got their dream job. It was such a drastic change for them that within the first week of the new job, they scratched their car, three times, in three different situations. They were also unexpectedly verbally attacked by a sibling at a family gathering.

The dream job was too disorienting to their inner landscape so the car scratching and verbal attack were their system trying to reorient itself with something familiar, in this case, misery.

What to do?

The first is to accept that it is not personal. The part of your mind that is concerned with structure doesn’t necessarily want you to be miserable.
It doesn’t want you to be happy either.
It doesn’t care one way or the other.
It is only concerned with the structure of your identity and that your identity doesn’t change too drastically and collapse.

Once you accept that you can game the system in what feels counterintuitive but allows you to change more quickly without setting of the alarms.
Instead of the chaos happening to you, you create a little bit of controlled chaos to soothe the part of your mind concerned with structure.

This will be different for everyone and requires a certain amount of self knowledge.  It starts with seeing the pattern if there is one. Like my friend and the holidays.
Or being willing to look into how you feel about something great on the horizon. Like the person starting the new job.

If you can get a sense of what inner structure is being triggered you can take appropriate action.

The principle is you happen to it, rather than it happening to you.

In the example of my friend – knowing their holidays are looming they can actively do things to soothe the inner structure of the need for a hazardous and punishing path – just not so much.
A sort of hazardous and punishing path – lite. 
They might work late in the days leading up to their holiday,
or do their taxes,
or clean out cupboards they have been meaning to,
or go to the gym if they have been putting it off.
Any activity they would consider as mildly miserable will do the trick.
A bit of controlled suffering to stave off a big reset.

The same will work for the person starting the new job. They will need to first acknowledge that behind the feeling of elation, at securing the new job, is an anxiety. This is not easy to do as it doesn’t make sense but if they can see it they can get ahead of it. They can actively engage in some controlled suffering to make the transition into the new job, and more significantly the altered identity, more gentle.

Practicing controlled suffering stops the yo-yo pattern of dramatic change followed by crushing reversion because it allows you to grow gently and over time, like most things in nature do.

Practicing controlled suffering is like the rain that over time erodes the mountain.

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Photo by Tyler Sakil on Unsplash


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