I don’t know when I learned the word sublimation but I’ve always had the impression via context that it was a bad thing.
Turns out it’s the best coping mechanism there is. There’s a story told in Surviving Survival about a couple that get mauled by a bear. Recovering in hospital the wife has panic attacks while the husband finds creative ways to smuggle in food and blend it because his jaw is wired shut. She wants to go home, he wants to go ice climbing. She stays home and researches bears, he takes up wind surfing. Her life stops, he builds them a house and furniture. She commits suicide 20 years after the attack having never gotten over it. He keeps going.
Despite all the pop culture focus on letting it out and exploring and not denying your pain, the psychologists in the book agree that if you can compartmentalize your trauma and keep doing new stuff you can rewire your brain. The book has a woman who moved to India, which is the biggest act of compartmentalization possible because you’ve compartmentalized the world into the half where you were traumatized and the half where you’re someone new learning Hindi.
And there was a woman who knit for sometimes 8 hours a day after being shot by her husband (I think she was the one who got shot by her husband, there was a lot of animal attacks – shark, bear, husband, it all blurs together). Which sounds like addictive, compulsive behaviour because it is. The positive side being that she was working on something constructive, easing her anxiety, meeting people within the knitting community (yep, it exists. It exists like a motherfucker, people love getting together to knit as it turns out), and everyone got a bunch of nice scarfs and sweaters. The knitting tapered off (is that a pun? I don’t know) as the time went by and the positive aspects kicked in. That’s the difference between sublimation and escapism.
Escapism and wallowing actually have a lot in common. Escapism isn’t really an escape, it’s just a hiding place, you’re not going anywhere just as if you were wallowing in it. Healthy sublimation is whenever that little light in your brain, whatever cue you have to feel bad, goes off you acknowledge it and tie it to something good.
Just don’t wallow and don’t escape. Once you start escaping you can wind up escaping your whole life, escaping into smaller and smaller spaces until all of life is out there and you’re totally alone in here. It’s junkie life. And don’t wallow, your pain isn’t a baby, it doesn’t need constant care and feeding. Don’t make trauma your identity, don’t even let it be your hobby, in fact – get a hobby totally out of character just to show that your pain isn’t who you are. Wear pink and go windsurfing, no one in a ton of pain would or could do that.
I put a lot of thought into forgiveness and acceptance thinking that was the only path to true, free, happiness. And of course like all things I over-did it. Forgiving and accepting turned into a chore and I was a slave to it, it made me happy at first and then remembering to forgive every time the pain-light went on it just became another thing to feel bad about – that I still wasn’t great at forgiving and accepting. I got mad that I was still mad and I got depressed that I was still depressed.
I have to let myself be selfish and angry sometimes and there is a healthy way to do that. Let your righteous anger get you to the gym, or the sewing circle, or the volunteer sign up sheet. Let your pain make you kind.