17: First, Do No Harm

One of the great laws of healing states: first, do no harm. Superficially, this statement seems so obvious that it should be unnecessary to enunciate it. However, the human mind has almost an infinite power to rationalize total nonsense and justify bad habits. The evidence for this is easily found in large numbers of people who continually repeat dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors, even though they are clearly destructive to relationships and their general well-being. As they reflect on perceived injustice, for example, they stir up their anger as if this is the best way to cope. They dwell on all the good things that should have happened, but didn’t, and thus reproduce more disappointment. Or they worry about all the work that lies ahead for them, thereby creating even more anxiety.

In earlier chapters we have examined how the bodyguards of fear, sadness, anger, and guilt can be enormously effective in preserving our wounds, preventing healing, and halting any effort to move beyond our suffering. Something in us resists change—even change that would definitely improve ourself and the situations about us. While it seems impossible that anyone would want to remain miserable, vast numbers of people seem to defy common sense and continue to act this way.

Part of the reason for this is that people are often misguided in their attempts to seek healing. Instead of looking for solutions to their distress, they are tricked into making an endless study of their wounds and problems, how they began, who did it to them, and how much suffering has occurred. This examination seduces them to seek relief by picking through their past to find villains and tragedies to blame for all their misery. Once they fix the blame on key events and real life villains, they assume their work is done. At last, they “understand” their problem and how it began and evolved. Unfortunately, they are usually still quite anxious, depressed, angry, and self- absorbed. However, they can talk about their distress more lucidly than ever, using psychological jargon to describe their pain and suffering. The rest of their life is often spent complaining about their enemies and lamenting their distress. They fail to recognize that their efforts have served more to preserve their suffering than provide relief and healing. Even worse, they have taken a number of vague memories of discomfort and condensed them into a concrete, sharply-defined crystalization of animated accusations—usually exaggerated, sometimes entirely invented.

We need better answers and solutions than this. The reason why so many people fall for false methods of healing is that they want to feel better without having to be better. They prefer to keep as many of their bad habits, grudges, and fears as possible after the “healing.” They want to learn the “right use” of their grief, anxiety, and anger so they can be sensitive to danger, preserve their capacity for sympathy and caring, and stay “strong” to deal with enemies. Of course the hidden motive is to use these moods to attract sympathy, avoid responsibility, and manipulate others. If their distress becomes too much to endure, they seek some simple shortcut to instant health—something that does not require any real effort or sacrifice of protected attitudes and habits. Angry people often prefer a method to relieve their anger that does not involve giving up their “right” to hate and blame their enemies. Depressed people often leap at a healing method that permits them to continue to lament their missed opportunities and feeling of being neglected and abandoned. Anxious people prefer an approach that encourages them to remember the wounds of their past to justify their constant fears and maintain their continual self-absorption. These shortcuts often involve questionable activities such as breathing away the pain, releasing our fear, imaging pink light to dissolve our sadness, or neutralizing our anger by visualizing it flowing away from us. Aside from a brief placebo effect, this is mostly magical thinking and has little enduring effect except in fiction and movies—not real life.

The most misleading and destructive way to pursue healing is to attempt to dispose of rage, grief, and fear by vigorously expressing them. The theory is that we can get rid of anger by raging, eliminate sadness by crying, and dispose of fear by screaming. While any intense effort is usually followed by a temporary exhaustion, the long-term effect increases our irritation, anger, fear, and grief. Addicts to strong surges of anger or sadness should take a minute to realize that no one loses their sense of humor by telling jokes and laughing a lot. No one loses their sense of rhythm by singing or playing music. Perhaps logic and reason are just too much for those who prefer high drama to mental health.

The deliberate effort to express our dark moods in this manner switches on our misery magnets and magnifiers to spin at high speeds to sustain and increase our suffering. This is not a smart choice.

Preserving some degree of illness, depression, anxiety, and hostility often comes with special benefits that are very seductive to some people and, therefore, difficult to give up. Because they have what appears to be a genuine disability that justifies reduced work and responsibility, they often come to enjoy being pampered, indulged, and allowed to thrive with lowered expectations. More than a few secretly enjoy their claim of victimhood and its special rewards. This approach to managing illness produces permanent narcissism and self-indulgences that can be addictive to those who use these “drugs” to relieve their frustration. Once we begin to use our distress to procure special benefits, any real healing work will be inhibited. The incentive now shifts to preserving just enough of the disability to justify these extra advantages. Of course, no one ever admits to using their disability this way, but these motives and expectations can be an unconscious force that sabotages our healing efforts and recovery.

These rationalizations and behaviors are based on a certain sick logic that does not stand up to careful scrutiny. We need proper guidance and thoughtful examination to help us sort out the methods that work from those that either waste our time or actually increase our distress.

A thorough understanding of the principles of healing will provide the standards and perspectives by which we sort out methods that are effective in healing our dark moods and habits of psychic self-sabotage.

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