These days, Carl Jung’s revolutionary suggestion that ‘what we resist, persists’ — the idea that denying or avoiding negative emotions only suppresses them — is a widely accepted one.
I imagine most people have had the experience of admitting a potentially embarrassing secret to someone, and been filled with the pleasant sensations of relief at having finally ‘opened up’. That said, resistance to the unpleasant physical sensations that go with shame seem perfectly understandable to me, I even have a powerful story about rejection that goes along with them to reinforce my avoidant behaviour. What I find harder to understand though, is why I might avoid experiencing pleasure.
Rob is a fairly new client of mine. One of only three men I’m working with currently, and not the only one who describes an ‘addiction to his smartphone’. He isn’t the one that calls it that though, that’s his wife. Rob’s wife Layla is sick to death of how much time he spends staring at the screen, playing a game she judges as ‘mindless’ and, since he retired earlier this year, she tells him it’s got worse.
“She says I play it constantly.”
“And do you?”
“Of course not.”
“How many hours a day do you think you play?”
Rob shrugs, his arms crossed across his chest. “No idea,” he says, “But not constantly.”
“Do you play in the mornings?”
“Before you get out of bed?”
“Yeah, for a little while.” Rob shifts in his seat. His arms are still crossed and now he’s frowning.
“It seems like she mainly notices this when you’re together, so do you play when she’s in the room?”
“Sometimes. When she’s watching TV I’ll play. Or if I go to bed before her. While she’s driving.”
“While she’s making dinner?”
Rob straightens his body, I imagine defensively, “Actually I make the dinner most nights.”
“OK, and do you play then?”
“While things are cooking, yeah.”
“So it sounds like you do spend a lot of time playing it.”
Rob shrugs again, “I suppose, but I don’t see it as a problem. It’s just a time filler.”
“And a silence filler?” I suggest.
Rob purses his lips. We sit for a minute in a silence that now feels like a rather witty joke. Rob’s arms are still folded, but I notice his right foot is tapping rapidly. He doesn’t look at me, but instead looks out the glass pane of the door.
“So what would happen if you stopped playing the game?”
“Nothing. We’d probably just sit in silence.”
“Is that what you used to do? Before you had a smartphone?”
Rob gives his head a little shake, “No, we used to talk. When we had stuff to talk about.”
“And you don’t have anything to talk about now?”
“Well she does… but I don’t.”
“You have a story that you have nothing interesting to say to her?”
Rob gives a small, wry smile, “Yeah, that’s my story.”
This is not the first time I’ve asked Rob about his story. In my experience, reframing someone’s reality as their ‘story’ is sometimes all they need to remind them of their responsibility as creator of the reality they’re describing. Layla hadn’t described Rob as boring, or suggested he had nothing interesting to say — in fact just the opposite — but Rob’s imagined ‘story’ was that Layla would be bored by hearing about the details of his day spent at home.
Rob imagines Layla will reject him when he talks about his boring day, so he uses the game on his phone as a way of avoiding conversation and potential embarrassment, and as a consequence withdraws from connecting with her at all. OK, this area of resistance seems classic, I think, and I begin to feel pretty pleased with myself…before I consider the rest of the time Rob describes playing on his phone. He plays when he’s eating breakfast, when he’s cooking dinner, when he’s gardening, even when he’s out walking Alfie the dog. I start to wonder that, as well as avoiding the sensations of shame, if Rob is deliberately resisting sensations that could give him pleasure too.
Rob tells me how he used to cycle to work every day, and how much he misses it.
“The exercise?” I say
“No, although that was good. No, I liked the feeling in my legs, after a couple of miles when your muscles start to get warm, and you feel like you could keep going all day. And when the wind is rushing over you, and you’re cool and hot at the same time…” a big smile has spread across his face, “And then when I got into work, stripping down and having a really hot shower, and dressing in clean clothes… No it was all good.”
I tell him I love his description. That it makes me want to get my bike out and cycle fast and enjoy the wind and the rain on my face. Rob laughs and nods.
“I imagine when you take Alfie out, you could still experience some of those things?”
Rob’s mouth quirks, “It’s not the same though.”
“How is it different?”
“I’m not on my way to work. And I mean…I have to walk him, but it’s not fun for me.”
“And how do you make it ‘not fun’?”
Rob considers this question carefully, frowning. He understands what I’m asking, because I’ve framed questions like this before. I’m asking what he tells himself that turns this potentially pleasurable activity into a chore that he uses his smartphone to disconnect even further from.
“I tell myself that I have to do it. That I’ve got no choice. That any idiot could do it. And it’s not like I’ve got anything else to do.”
“And why you can’t enjoy it? Enjoy the sensations of your muscles getting exercised, and the wind and rain on your face? Can’t you enjoy looking at nature all around you?”
The sound of his voice has changed and I imagine sound tense and angry, and I wonder out loud,
“Are you not allowed to enjoy it?”
Rob’s expression starts to crumble, “I don’t…deserve to.”
I feel a strong tension across my chest, and tears in my eyes.
“You tell yourself you don’t deserve to enjoy it.”
Tears run down Rob’s face, and he takes several deep breaths inwards.
“No, I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve to be happy.”
Rob’s reasons for these beliefs are a story from another session, and during this exchange my only goal was to help him to notice how he was resisting his experience, both negative and positive, and creating suffering for himself in the process. Rob’s desire for attention and affection from Layla (if expressed) would very likely have resulted in exactly what he wanted, but his fear of the sensations of rejection was so strong he convinced himself that silence and his smartphone were a safer option. Likewise, his guilty story that he didn’t deserve a happy, healthy retirement meant that he resisted all the pleasurable sensations of walking, eating and enjoying nature, choosing instead to tune them out with the same device.
Nowadays, Rob says he enjoys his daily walk more and more, talks to the other dog owners he meets, has made new friends, and has — inexplicably — collected a vast number of pine cones that he has no real idea what to do with.
“They smell fantastic though!” he says with infectious enthusiasm.
His use of his smartphone to avoid life (and Layla) is on the wane. Nowadays, he says, he leaves it at home when he walks Alfie, meaning she can’t call him during the day and he has more to tell her in the evening as a result. Hurried, irritable conversations by phone have been replaced by casual chats over long lunches in town. Sometimes he says they look around at the other couples sat together, both on their phones, and roll their eyes at the irony of how — for them and so many others — a communication device can be the means of avoiding connection instead of making it.