It Feels Good to Feel: Healing as "Un-Working"
I often find myself remarking on the ironies and paradoxes of doing healing work in American culture. Indeed, that very sentence contains the one I want to discuss here! Namely: "healing work."
Contemporary American culture is one of the most work-obsessed, work-addicted, workaholic cultures in the world. On average, Americans work more hours but are in more debt than citizens of any other industrialized nation. Workaholism is not only tacitly supported by structural, institutional, ideological, and mythological elements of our culture, it is actively encouraged and rewarded by countless forces, voices, perspectives, and values. For many Americans, their lives simply are their work. Everything else is just a dispensable afterthought.
As always, I must offer the typical disclaimer that I do not pretend for this post to comprehensively address the many complex aspects of "work." While this is the context in which I'm offering the current critique as it applies to healing, medicine, and therapy, by no means am I presenting the absurd thesis that "work is bad," or that nobody should ever work hard, or work long hours, etc. Indeed, workaholism is not just a matter of working too much, in a simple quantitative sense of working too many hours. It is possible to work long hours every day and not technically be a victim of workaholism, while, conversely, it is entirely possible to work a reasonable number of hours and yet suffer from workaholism.
I am here also distinguishing "work" (specifically, overwork, workaholism, or work addiction, which can roughly be used interchangeably) from vocation, in the larger sense of a more spiritually-oriented "sacred labor," defined very generally as work performed by a person that simultaneously contributes sustainable, constructive benefit to the world while also providing a sense of spiritual, social, and personal fulfillment, satisfaction, and pride to the individual. Sadly, very few people in contemporary culture truly have a vocation, in this sense. Most people work purely as a matter of survival, and/or trying to maximize their retirement funds so that when/if they finally retire, they can enjoy life after decades of mindless, soul-depleting, stressful, unfulfilling work.
The last part of this disclaimer is simply my admission -- lest you think I am somehow "anti-work" or lazy -- that I love to work hard. I've worked customer service and retail jobs off and on since I was 14, and I've also worked in a wide range of physically demanding, exhausting manual labor jobs, including farming, ranch work, tree work/landscaping/gardening, masonry, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, mechanics, general construction, and high-altitude mountain trail building. I can sling a shovel, swing a hammer, and/or carry heavy loads all day, every day. I actually love that kind of work.
Nonetheless, there's a pathological side to the American ideology of constant, compulsive work. And this culture of workaholism has now infiltrated even our healthcare, medical, and therapeutic systems and practices, institutionally and personally.
Workaholism: The Vocational-Cultural Water We Swim In
Dr. Bryan Robinson, emeritus professor and psychotherapist with a clinical specialization in workaholism, writes that
Workaholism is the best-dressed of all the addictions. It is enabled by our society's dangerous immersion in overwork, which explains why we can't see the water we swim in, and why many therapists look blank when the spouses of workaholics complain of loneliness and marital dissatisfaction. There are hundreds of studies on alcoholism, substance abuse, compulsive gambling, and eating disorders, but only a handful on workaholism, a profound omission." (Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, p. 2-3)
Coupled with the countless other factors that contribute to our culture's collective condition of chronic distress, hyperactivity, and speed, workaholism has many direct, and indirect, harmful effects on health. The recent "mindfulness revolution" -- the sudden surge of interest in mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, etc., which has been engaged throughout society, from kindergarten classrooms and daycare centers to multinational corporate board rooms and military training programs -- is one way people have sought to remedy the extreme distress they experience on a daily basis. But, as a handful of authors have explained, this very attempt to remedy the distress of overwork has been so twisted by the neoliberal-patriarchal-entrepreneurial work-obsessed economic culture that mindfulness is often engaged as a means of increasing work productivity and supporting people in more thoroughly embedding themselves in a work culture whose insatiable appetite for more inevitably creates more of the same distress that leads people to seek remedy in the first place. Zen priest and university professor Ronald Purser, Ph.D. calls this "McMindfulness."
Workaholism has also infected our efforts and strategies for healing, generally. The dominant discursive narrative in psychotherapeutic, New Age mindfulness/spirituality, and trauma-resolution practices speaks of "doing the work," which is meant to refer to any number of contemplative practices engaged to help a person resolve trauma, process stuck energy, overcome grief, strengthen their ability to emotionally regulate, and even to achieve spiritual enlightenment. People often speak of "working on their stuff," by which people mean meditating or doing some other mindful or contemplative practice that's supposed to be helping them heal by metabolizing toxic energy.
But the problem isn't just the language we use to talk about healing; the real concern is when people literally adopt the implications of such discourse into experiences that are supposed to be healing. Given the ubiquity of our culture's obsession with work and the pervasive idea that if we aren't struggling and straining through something, then we don't deserve or won't achieve the promised outcome (the old "no pain, no gain" ideology, which is fundamentally false even when it comes to training world-class athletes) various elements of workaholism often manifest in people's approaches to their own biopsychosocial-spiritual development!
In matured form, this manifests as people engaging a mindfulness practice, such as yoga, as a chore. Most people I know who are on a path of healing and/or spiritual growth often approach their efforts toward these ends as if it's just more work that they "have" to complete, else they will suffer and/or fail to improve themselves in some way. More specifically, the unspoken assumption of many people's engagement with mindfulness or spiritual practices is that there is something wrong with them, and they need to fix what's broken, and such and such a practice is the psychic repairing mechanism or tool to be applied to whatever supposed defect they are "working on." But the vague notion of "self-improvement" peddled by the pop-psy and self-help industries is not equivalent to healing, nor to real spirituality.
Taking this posture toward mindful-spiritual-healing practices also often implies that such experiences must be difficult, intense, hard, and generally something challenging to endure. To be sure, experiences such as grief can be intense. But this doesn't mean they are "bad" or something to "endure" or "tolerate" the way pain is tolerated. If anything, when it comes to so-called (but not actually) "negative" emotions and experiences such as grief, anger, frustration, despair, sadness, guilt, shame, etc., it is the avoidance of these energies that is the pain people try to escape from, thereby increasing the pain they try to escape from in the very act of trying to escape, simply because such escaping/running/avoiding/neglecting IS the functional-practical manifestation of the fear and anxiety-producing neurophysiology that constitutes trauma (see this post for a more thorough discussion of this phenomenon). As Tom Myers perceptively proposes: "Pain is sensation accompanied by the motor tension to withdraw. If you're not trying to get away from it, it isn't pain; it's just sensation."
It Feels Good to Feel: From Problem to Potential
When we take the pejorative, judgmental, shaming, and scientifically inaccurate perspective that a whole half of our emotional-affective lives are "bad" or "negative" (i.e., reductively characterizing emotional experiences into the simplistic, morally-judgmental categories of "good/positive" and "bad/negative," as the Harvard psychologist Susan David explains), we are led to engage our somatic-emotive experiences as problems to be fixed, rather than as opportunities to be engaged or potentials to be actualized. This is where we can see the vital importance of understanding the neurophysiology of trauma and emotional dys/regulation.
Trauma is not an illness or pathology, nor are the symptomatic outgrowths of trauma, which include the large majority of falsely-named "mental illnesses" or "mental disorders" treated by psychotherapists and psychologists, such as depression, anxiety, mood swings, relational dysfunctions, addictions/compulsions, harmful habits, etc. Rather, "trauma" is the harmful neurophysiological condition that results when an originally adaptive, protective response of our nervous system is prohibited from completing itself and returning our various bodily systems (vital for health and wellbeing) from returning to a regulated state in which they can actually serve their respective and intersecting roles in sustaining the thousands of trillions of functions and processes necessary for keeping us alive and healthy.
In short, trauma does not represent a "problem" to be "fixed" -- being "fixed" (stuck) in a dysregulated state following a triggering event is trauma! Rather, trauma represents a potential to be actualized. Trauma is a repressed strength just waiting to be liberated! The metabolizing of the repressed/stuck/restricted energy that constitutes trauma not only returns us to a more regulated emotional-nervous state, it positively and constructively grows our cognitive and spiritual powers, capacities, and abilities.
Moreover, one of the central -- if not the primary -- components of trauma resolution is the somatic mind ("body") re-learning that it feels good to feel. In trauma, dissociation and numbing of interoceptive abilities ("interoceptive:" the internal feeling of holistic bodily state, which is absolutely vital for health on every level) are common strategies for practically functioning in the world while one's neurophysiology remains dysregulated and therefore functionally compromised. Over time, this adaptive strategy has the unfortunate consequence of leading people to distrust their own feelings and to experience their emotional-affective-sensuous sensations as dangerous, threatening, and/or unreliable. This only further feeds the desire to escape and/or numb, which indirectly feeds the need to seek ever-more intense experiences to achieve a desired level of stimulation-sensation (this is the basis of drug addiction, work addiction, sex/dating addiction, and other forms of sensuous thrill-seeking). The further into such a process we go, the less satisfied we are. In turn, that cycle only furthers the sense that one's sensations are to be avoided as "bad" or distressing to experience, and so on and so forth.
Eventually, this becomes a self-recursively triggering positive feedback loop, which is a peculiar phenomenon that can occur within us as a result of our cognitive systems being informationally and operationally closed systems. In short, complex and longitudinal trauma can manifest a "self-triggering" phenomenon that, in the extreme, manifests as panic/anxiety attacks. The phenomenon is essentially the same as acoustic feedback in an audio system: when you place a microphone in front of an amplified speaker that the microphone feeds its signal into, that signal is then amplified back into the microphone, which then feeds that already-amplified signal back into the amplifier and speaker, and so on. The result: that awful screeching sound you hear when the crew is setting up the stage for a concert or presentation.
And, just as with feedback in an audio system, the only way to calm the noise of any self-recursively triggering positive feedback loop is to interrupt the cycle. With trauma, this involves two primary components: 1) releasing excess energy, and 2) restoring the ability to safely feel the intensity of one's emotions-affections.
So, when we approach healing as a chore, a task, as "working" on ourselves, we undermine our ability to restore the desire and ability to safely feel. When we engage our experiences as problems to be fixed, or defects to repair, we actually (given the non-dual, self-creative ontological continuity of living systems) further manifest a "problematic" quality in our experience! For it is the very confusion/conflation of feeling and fear (what Peter Levine calls "tonic immobility") following a threatening experience that constitutes trauma. This fear/anxiety-driven self-referential phenomenon is the cycle we need to break to resolve trauma.
Breaking the Fear-Anxiety-Shame Cycle of Trauma: Re-Learning that It Feels Good to Feel
To break the cycle of trauma, we must be supported in re-learning that it feels good to feel. The most pure, pervasive, and holistic ecstasy we can experience comes not from drugs or any artificial stimulation such as virtual reality systems; it comes directly from our innate ability to fully and intensely feel -- sensuously, perceptively, aesthetically, emotionally -- ourselves and our environment (assuming it's relatively safe) without fear. This re-learning is holistically cognitive: we need to know this on multiple, intersecting levels: conceptually/logically, as well as somatically and functionally. It is not enough to have the idea that it feels good to feel, we must actually be supported in literally feeling whatever is there for us, without fear, resistance, or distrust of our own somatic sensations.
This is what I help friends and clients do: actually feel the goodness of feeling. When I engage some form of mindfulness or fitness practice, I don't do it because I think there's something wrong with me that I need to fix, correct, or repair. I'm not prompted to do yoga because I feel like something in me just broke and became defective. I do it because I enjoy feeling more fully, subtly, extensively, and intensely the multidimensional, dynamic somatic-affective qualities that inhere in our tangible enmeshment with the worlds around us. I am not seeking to empty myself of feelings or sensations, as in some meditative practices. Instead, I seek to more fully experience all that I can possibly experience.
In this sense, this approach to resolving trauma and to mindfulness, fitness, or recreational activities is characterized by a focus on supporting the development of a positive-constructive ability to feel intensely without fear, rather than a focus on fixing what is broken. When we take the latter approach, such practices/experiences become "work" in the pejorative sense of someone lamenting on Sunday evening that, "Ah man, I gotta go back to work tomorrow. Darn it!" When we take the former approach, healing becomes a positive opportunity to excitedly engage; a potential to actualize; and a strength to develop.
In a culture totally dominated by, obsessed with, and compulsively addicted to work in an economic system premised on never enough, it is easy for such sociocultural pathologies to manifest in our very efforts to heal from those pathologies! Thus, it is no small matter to re-frame these efforts from an essentially scarcity-defect-deficiency-based mentality of "never enough" (which is really the core of shame, which is the core of trauma) to an abundance-strengths-potentials mentality.
In other words, in this cultural-ecological context, where many people's distress is a direct result of being conscripted into a merciless culture of overwork and work compulsion, healing might be redefined simply as a practice of "un-working." It is an exercise in embodying "enoughness," of feeling the innate, inherent abundance of your being as the brilliant manifestation of billions of years of divine, cosmic, planetary evolution of embodied intelligence and aesthetic wonder that we call living systems. How often do you think of and actually tangibly experience yourself in this way? Indeed, this is rare in our culture. Our socioeconomic system, being premised on an ideology of shame/never enough, has conditioned most people to think of themselves primarily as scarcity: from childhood, we are conditioned to believe that we are never... wealthy enough, successful enough, promoted enough, credentialed enough, trained enough, educated enough, liked enough, thin enough, popular enough, muscular enough, efficient enough, fashionable enough, trendy enough, smart enough; not enough clients, not enough sales, not enough profit, not enough efficiency, not enough social media followers, not enough gigs, not enough savings, not enough recognition, not enough friends, not a nice enough dwelling, not a new enough phone, not a fast enough computer, etc., etc., etc.
This cognitive pathology of scarcity-shame thinking has infected the vast majority of civilizational culture, and we're all suffering for it (not to mention the Earth herself, who has been violently exploited in service of this insane cultural-economic imperative). It drives profit, and dis-ease. It will never produce health. Health and healing results from real-izing (i.e. literally making real) and remembering our inherent, innate enoughness. Indeed, "mindfulness" etymologically means "memory, to remember, remembering" (although there is debate about the precise etymology and meaning of "mindfulness," see my dissertation for a discussion of this). So, healing practices such as mindfulness, therapeutic or recreative activities, or contemplative practices are best conceived not as a tool or process to fix a defect but as a holistic educational experience of re-learning that it feels good to feel.
This thesis is closely aligned to adrienne maree brown's wonderful book Pleasure Activism. If you know the deep truth of Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the medium is the message," you'll know exactly why this strengths-abundance-potentials approach is the antidote we need to this out-of-control workaholic culture of never enough. Insofar as we try to heal through a strategy of "fixing" ourselves, we only exacerbate our ills, for being fixed/stuck in an ever-expanding cycle of self-referential shaming (individually+collectively) manifest as an originally adaptive defensive-protective response becoming maladaptive by its forceful-fearful restriction IS TRAUMA. To heal, we must become unfixed. We must learn to un-work ourselves from excessive, damaging, degrading work that leaves no room for the spirit in its mechanizing of our cognitive functions in service of an insane, unsustainable, myopic, traumatizing economic imperative driven by the unquestionable authority of the unending dogmatic demand for MORE AT ANY COST.
So, the next time you feel like there's something "wrong" with you that prompts you to think "I need to go work on this," try reframing the situation. Generally speaking, the pain, discomfort, fear, etc. that prompts us to seek therapy, medicine, spiritual enlightenment, or medical treatment of some kind is simply our body saying "Hey! I'm being neglected here. I just need to be supported in naturally, spontaneously/emergently healing/regulating." So when these experiences arise in us, the response is not to do something to fix or solve or correct anything, but to do something (like yoga, mindful movement, dancing, exercising, etc.) that enables us to engage and expand our innate self-healing, self-regulating capabilities. Trauma is precisely the repression of our ability to fully experience ourselves in our innate, inalienable enoughness and abundance, so healing is ultimately a matter of re-connecting with this natural abundance. Healing is not an outcome generated through difficult, exhausting nose-to-the-grindstone effort employed in the service of getting us from where we are to somewhere we aren't. Not being where/who/as we are is trauma. So to learn to be with oneself in the fullness of our present-moment experiencing is to heal.
Thus, from my perspective, mindfulness practices should be defined as any activity-exercise-experience that serves to engage and enhance our already-existing abundance and help us remember that it feels good to feel. Repression, running, avoiding, and escaping is the pain/discomfort/dysregulation we're trying to resolve. The harder we try to heal, the less we heal. The harder we try to meditate, the further we are from a meditative state. Feeling our bodies spontaneously metabolizing the stuck energy we're avoiding or escaping from feels good, and is healing.
In short, don't "work on" yourself -- celebrate yourself! Become an abundance and pleasure activist.
brown, adrienne maree, ed. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019.
The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage | Susan David, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDQ1Mi5I4rg.
Fassel, Diane. Working Ourselves to Death: The High Cost of Workaholism, the Rewards of Recovery. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990.
H., Alexia. When It's Never Enough: Daily Reflections of a Work Addict. Independently published, 2018.
Killinger, Barbara. Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 1997.
Levine, Peter A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Purser, Ronald. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Repeater, 2019.
Robinson, Bryan E. Chained to the Desk (Third Edition): A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. 3rd edition. New York: NYU Press, 2014.