Whitney Houston

Was Whitney Houston’s death caused by a belief that she could not contain her emotional pain? She was self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs and it went terribly wrong. What if Whitney had believed she could contain her pain and any other emotions that might come? She might still be living.

We humans are programmed to move away from pain and towards comfort. Whitney Houston fell squarely into this programming and, if we’re honest, we all do in some way, shape or form.  Whitney just fell deeper. Here are some things I believe:

1–Life can be very, very painful.

2–This pain is not evenly distributed; some people carry more than others.

3–Our world offers myriad false remedies that we adopt to cope with pain.

After a death like this, there is a predictable uproar about substance and medication abuse and their dangers. For some, Whitney’s death will be the wake up call and they will get treatment! But for all of us, do we hear the more subtle invitation? If we, like Whitney, are moving away from pain and coping in some potentially destructive way, how do we get the courage to develop ourselves as people willing to experience pain for the sake of our own growth and transformation?

Recently I have been working with the idea that most clients who come for counseling can be diagnosed with distress intolerance. The work of therapy is to help these clients figure out that their distress is, in fact, tolerable. More tolerable than their avoidance strategy, which has either fallen apart or caused untenable problems. If it were still holding up, why come in for treatment, after all? The things that bring folks into counseling are all too often programs to avoid pain; OCD, agoraphobia, avoidant personality disorder, and also infidelity, passivity, and aggression.  Counseling would be an intolerable job if it weren’t for my unwavering belief that people can be supported, taught, and helped to build or recognize within themselves what they need to tolerate emotional distress. The container is there, but in some cases it has never been used. God made us with this capacity and delights to reveal it, grow it, and strengthen it. Choosing that path, the one of of healing and integration, requires courage and faith because it involves allowing the variety of human emotions rather than avoiding or coping with them.  It is not an easy path, but it leads somewhere….to life and freedom.

How do you experience your own distress intolerance?

Victory by Accident

Was the Ravens victory last Sunday a fluke? All but three points that we scored came from capitalizing on turnovers, giving us tortured fans that uneasy feeling of “victory by accident”. Not a good mental state when facing the Patriots and the Superbowl is on the line.

What do you do when your own life feels like the Ravens game? Do you tend to question whether your personal accomplishments are a fluke? Do you feel like an imposter in your own life? I bet the Ravens have well-paid sports psychologists working overtime this week, trying to drill into these guys that their victory was deserved. After all, they created the pressure on that third string quarterback to throw those interceptions, and they caught the passes thrown to the defenders, right? They could have blown it, but they didn’t! I don’t know, it’s a shaky confidence, at best.

As I wonder what emotional harangues these players have to deal with this week, I think of how no matter what our profession or stage in life, this challenge presents itself to all of us. It takes a lot of courage to look squarely at life and sit with the uncertainty of whether we fairly beat the competition or snaked in by someone’s mistake. And sometimes we never figure it out. But how do we live in the meantime? As imposters, as over-inflated victors, or as sober realists? What doors has God opened to you and how are you settling with yourself as you walk through them? I would love to hear how you have managed the tension of not always quite knowing if you’ve gotten where you are by discernable merit, or by a shaky set of circumstances that tipped in your favor.

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