Handling Emotional Pain In Addiction Recovery
By: Eddie Capparucci
Those of us who work in the addiction field will often explain to clients battling various addictions, “you need to learn to hold onto your emotional pain and move forward despite the distress you may experience.”
But what does it mean to “hold onto your emotional pain”?
Let’s take a look at this example. Tony grew up in a home with a father who was an amateur athlete and an older brother who excelled in sports. Tony was more academically inclined and did not have a passion for sports. This led to Tony receiving a great deal of criticism and mocking from his father and brother.
“They were always telling me that I was not good for anything and that I should be embarrassed about my inability to throw or catch a ball well,” Tony recalls. “It was a constant verbal pounding I took from them daily, teasing me for being less of a man. It also became where my father only wanted to hang out with my brother, and ignored me unless, of course, he was belittling me.”
Tony not only used schoolbooks to escape the mocking of two individuals who were supposed to be loving and kind, but he also became heavily involved in Internet pornography when he was 14.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated being home,” Tony continued as he remembered his troublesome childhood. “Just like my homework would be a great distraction, so was pornography. In watching porn, I felt not only stimulated, but comforted, because there was no comfort to be found in my home.”
Through his inner child recovery work, Tony realized that one of his core emotional triggers was feeling he was not good enough. As an adult, whenever an event would happen that led to Tony feeling “not being good enough,” he would find himself knee-deep in pornography, to distract himself from the sadness and anxiety.
This trigger would often occur at home when Tony’s wife would criticize him for not helping enough around the house. “She says that I’m not good for anything and that I would prefer just to lay around on weekends,” Tony said as he recalled this occurring argument between him and his wife. “And when she starts, I lose it and start screaming at her to leave me alone. Doesn’t she understand that I work hard to provide for our kids and us, and sometimes I’m tired on the weekend?”
Tony’s wife, not intending to, triggers him when she gives him the idea he is not a good husband. Because Tony does not know how to embrace his emotional anxiety, he lashes out at his wife to shut her down. And later, he will soothe himself with pornography and masturbation. He doesn’t want to sit and try to process the emotional shame that others believe he is not good enough.
In his recovery work, Tony learned his inability to sit with emotional pain was a factor in his pornography addiction. Therefore, he would need to learn to hold onto his emotional torment while dealing with adverse circumstances more positively.
To do this, he needed to understand what it means to “hold onto his emotional pain.”
To help Tony learn to hold onto his pain, he first needed to distinguish between the two circumstances that led to his despair.
In the first, his father and brother criticized and mocked him with the intent of making him feel bad about himself. They were malicious and uncaring with their verbal assaults. Their belittling and insulting words were meant to leave scars. They were attempting to shame him because of his lack of athletic abilities.
Tony saw the situation with his wife to be similar to that of his dad and brother. He believed her words were aimed at intentionally hurting him.
Now, while in both circumstances the same message was delivered – “you’re not good enough” – it was done with different intentions.
Tony’s situation with his wife is extremely different. At no time does she set out to intentionally hurt him. Although her approach may not be the most effective way to deal with the situation, her hurtful words were based on her own suffering of feeling overwhelmed by the workload at home. She was trying to get his attention in order to receive comfort from him. She did not know she was tapping into one of his core emotional triggers, and at no point was she attempting to shame her husband. In fact, by not being able to keep up with the house on her own, she was dealing with her own shame of feeling like a failure as a wife and mother.
Tony was instructed the next time his wife began to complain that he was not helping at home, he should immediately make himself cognizant of the emotional discomfort — not being good enough – her words were causing him. By making himself aware of the pain point, he then could “hold onto it” realizing it had been activated. This could allow Tony the opportunity to recognize that this circumstance was different than what had occurred with his dad and brother.
By sitting with his emotional wound, Tony was able to process and determine what he was feeling (not good enough) did not match up with the current circumstance. His wife was not intentionally attacking him. Instead, she was experiencing her own anxiety and emotional distress. With this new insight, Tony moved away from being inwardly focused and allowing his emotions to trump hers, and instead, developed empathy and attentively listened to her concerns. In doing this exercise, over time, Tony’s “I’m not good enough” trigger started to desensitize. Because he saw his wife in a different light, he became more proactive in doing things around the house, which led to her anxiety decreasing.
Tony also learned to manage his pornography addiction as the relationship with his wife grew closer and more emotionally intimate.
There is great value to be found in learning to hold onto and process emotional pain. But to do so, those struggling with addictions must:
1. Slow down when becoming emotionally triggered 2. Become cognizant of the emotional pain point(s) 3. Process the emotional distress being experienced 4. Become outwardly focused to determine the difference between their emotions (what they feel) and the facts (what is real)
Without a doubt – holding onto and facing your emotional pain – is one of the most challenging aspects of recovery. That being said, it is also one of the most effective means to long-term sobriety.