Some time ago I was invited to be one of four speakers at a weekend retreat entitled Women In Recovery. The other three speakers came out of the AA tradition, as did the participants, but I did not. However, the person underwriting this event knew my work and felt it would be a complementary fit. At the end of the day on Saturday, a group of women asked if we could continue my class discussion back at the dorm where we were all housed (this event took place on a small college campus). Of course, I was delighted to oblige as I do love this work.

A large group gathered and we talked until dinner and reconvened afterwards. Amazingly, this group continued on until long past midnight and it was apparent that they were hearing something different and comforting that helped put together the pieces of the addictions puzzle. My workshop segment was entitled Healing the Hurt Behind Addictions and this name really says it all. The pain we experience, where it comes from, and how it drives us was the centerpiece of our lively conversation.

We self-medicate or distract ourselves in endless ways because we hurt. And rather than allowing that pain to process through to conclusion, we unwittingly interrupt the natural healing process. And this is a universal problem. No matter our culture, country of origin, or class, we instinctively avoid pain, misunderstand it, and attempt to block our experience of it. I interviewed a group of people who had engaged in a wide variety of addictions/distractions - then on the other side of their compulsions - for a project I was working on and asked them, “What is the matter with feeling? Why do you avoid it at all costs?” And the answers were so revealing. We have an enormous bias against feeling distress or pain as we are convinced it means something belittling about us, or worse, and most people simply are not, therefore, going to reveal how they really feel to anyone, and often to themselves. Some of the representative responses:

  1. One of the clear lessons was not to be emotional, not to feel, and the only safe place to be was, “never let them see you sweat!”
  2. When I was little, if I felt physical pain or if someone hurt my feelings, I would never cry.-- I thought only weak girls cried and tough girls didn’t and feeling upset was terrible.
  3. I definitely believed all feelings of upset were wrong and if I felt them, I was broken, bad, or “not good enough.
  4. I had some kind of a fantasy about what a good , spiritual person was like, and she definitely wouldn’t be uncomfortable.
  5. I thought if I felt feelings of uneasiness and agitation for no seeming reason, I would suffer.
  6. I was very sensitive to feelings of inadequacy, as they meant criticism and embarrassment. It was shameful and God forbid someone would see me this way!
  7. I thought responsible people didn’t have all this distress - it meant I just didn’t have my act together.
  8. I kept feelings out of awareness because they were so intense they seemed all-consuming and unbearable

These were a few of so many more, but you get the idea. We have concluded from our earliest days that our emotional nature and the feelings that derive from them are to be avoided at all costs because they are “proof” that we are inherently not okay, or some derivative of that idea. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth and allowing these notions to remain unexamined costs us mightily.

So where does this universal idea come from that we are not okay and feelings are the enemy and must be avoided at any and all costs? The process begins very early. We were programmed, conditioned, “wired,” so to speak, when we were so young it was all automatic and we had no ability to choose whether that wiring was helpful or unhelpful, accurate or inaccurate. In these early years when our core beliefs were laid down, without the ability to assess the accuracy of any given idea, word, thought, action, or experience encountered, it ALL downloaded into our unconscious minds as the “truth” where, to this day, it drives our experience. And this “truth,” derived by misconnecting the dots, so to speak, was that we were not deserving, don’t measure up, unworthy, unimportant, and more. I’ve been counseling people for 30 years on all sorts of issues and I find universally that by the time a person is six or seven, those incorrect and hurtful beliefs are firmly set and we are literally imprisoned with them.

Therefore, the problem is that as we mature, we never question those ideas because we presume they are the truth. It never occurs to us that these are merely mis-wired ideas stemming from an undeveloped brain. All this unexamined programming, including “what’s wrong with us” plays the central part in all our addictions because it creates our upsetting emotional states and fuels the habit of self-medication when the pain ensues.

Why is this essential to know for healing addictions? Because how you feel, your emotional state including pain, is directed by your thoughts and beliefs about yourself, so happiness is denied only by yourself and pain is produced only by yourself. That may sound crazy at first because the world teaches that other people, laws, governments, financial situations, bodies, germs, and the environment determine how you feel and we have, unfortunately, learned that well. So now this presumption must be unlearned because your beliefs cause your emotional state and painful emotions drive us to addictions and self-medication.
Here is the very simple version of what really happens to create either happiness/peace or distress/fear and on to addictions. The thoughts that constantly occupy your mind tell your brain what kinds of chemicals to create. If they are fear-based, conflict-ridden thoughts stemming from ideas you hold that are not true, that signals a threat to the brain and it dutifully responds by including a healthy dose of stress hormones in the mix. This chemical cocktail floods the body, is taken up via receptor sites into every one of the 60 trillion cells in your body, and THAT determines your emotional/feeling state.

Outside influences may trigger fearful beliefs you hold, which then initiates the cascade that follows. The important key is “trigger and not cause!” So now you can see how your upset feelings have an internal, not external, cause. The best news of all is that brains have this brilliant ability called “neuro-plasticity,” which allows for easy rewiring. So no matter how long you’ve believed things that are not true, causing yourself so much heartache and pain, you can decide to change your mind, automatically starting that rewiring, healing process.

If we understood the normal process built into the body, once pain is triggered, we would simply embrace, enfold, acknowledge, befriend or by any other means fully allow the feelings to be present. If we would stop running from uncomfortable or fearful emotions, the kindness inherent in accepting upset feelings immediately changes the body chemistry, ultimately restoring it to its normal state. This, of course, sounds foreign because almost none of us were shown how to do that when we were young. Running and avoiding pain and fear, rather than acceptance, were modeled for us and we have carried on that unfortunate tradition.

If we will challenge that tradition, be completely open to all emotional experiences, then emotions will settle, and we can then explore those unfortunate fear-based beliefs about ourselves and trade them in for a more loving and accurate self-appraisal. With the pain that underlies our addictions being ever more healed, our addictive behaviors fade away on their own. Therefore, this long-term step of trading false beliefs for more loving and accurate ones inevitably guarantees a freer, happier, more peaceful life.

Author's Bio: 

Carol Howe is one of the original and most respected teachers of A Course In Miracles. A personal friend of co-scribe Bill Thetford, she wrote his biography, Never Forget To Laugh. Throughout her 40 year career with ACIM, she has guided many thousands on their journey to inner peace. To download a free copy of her latest book “The Best Guide Ever to A Course In Miracles,” visit