The dictionary definition of a buffer is something that lessens the impact of something else, such as a chemical buffer that reduces the effect of one solution on another. A buffer can also refer to a person that prevents incompatible or antagonistic people from coming into contact with or irritating each other. I am immediately reminded of my family, full of strong personalities that don’t always get along well on their own, but when other, less confrontational personalities in the family are present, the buffering effect occurs. I don't happen to be one of the easier going members of the family, so I am grateful for them.
I also use the words buffer and buffering to refer to the numerous ways we deal with uncomfortable emotions. Even though alcohol and drugs are common buffers, they are far from the only substances that are. Food is the most popular buffer of all. We all must eat, so you can't avoid having food around the way you could avoid alcohol and drugs if you really wanted to. Media of all kinds are popular buffers too - TV, streaming video, music downloads, video games, movies, podcasts, porn, magazines, comics, even the local newspaper. And let's not even get started on social media, one of the most addictive of all buffers. Digital apps offering games of all types provide distraction from our every day life, and it’s uncomfortable emotions, and you don’t even need to get out of bed to use them. Due to the invention of the smartphone, we have a nearly endless assortment of buffering options, right in our pocket.
Humans are very creative when it comes to finding ways to distract ourselves any time we begin to feel something we'd rather not. The marketplace is more than happy to produce products and services to meet our desire to buffer. The explosion of technology has made an incredible array of distractions available, on-demand. Instant gratification is an important part of the buffering phenomenon. If we had to wait thirty minutes for an app to download, a sugar high to kick in or a drug to take effect, we just might figure out how to actually cope with our emotions, instead of buffering them. By the way, if you are wondering if you are using something in your life as a buffer, instant gratification is one of the criteria. Easy accessibility ( such as that smartphone in your hand) is another.
Emotions are the primary cause of non-physical discomfort and some emotions are more uncomfortable than others. Anger, hurt, sadness, loneliness, boredom, fear, and frustration are normal human emotions, but few of us are willing to experience them. I grew up in an abusive environment, and witnessed first hand how destructive these emotions are, as well as the desperate need to avoid experiencing them, if possible. Later in life, as a psychotherapist, I worked with hundreds of individuals seeking relief from emotions, and often from the compulsive buffering they engaged in, to attempt to avoid them.
I had a serious car accident in my 30s that left me with chronic pain, experienced ever since. Once physical pain became my constant companion, I was motivated to find ways to alleviate my suffering, without turning to unhealthy buffering, so I turned to meditation and acupuncture. From there, I discovered the path of Buddhism. During my training in Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice, I learned that life is not meant to be fun, happy, fulfilling and successful, at least not all of the time. A healthy life is a balanced life, one in which we experience the entire range of emotions and are able to cope with them. To be blunt, we are supposed to be happy about half the time, unhappy the other half. If we have the expectation that happiness is possible 100% of the time, no wonder we reach for whatever takes the edge off when that doesn't happen.
There are countless positivity coaches and abundance gurus propagating the myth that we can and should be happy, healthy and prosperous on a regular basis and that striving for this is an attainable and worthy goal. People fork over billions of dollars in the so-called personal growth industry to be lied to at worst and misled at best. Personal growth demands that we accept the inevitability of suffering and the willingness to do what it takes to learn how to cope with it, not eradicate it. I like to think of the range of human emotions as a keyboard. The white keys represent the emotions that we find pleasant - love, peace, joy, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, pride, confidence, compassion, and fulfillment, to name a few. The black keys cover the range of emotions we find uncomfortable - anxiety, frustration, jealousy, insecurity, anger, sadness, grief and hate, among others.
Try to imagine life with only one of these colors.
We might think that we want to experience only "white key" emotions, but in truth, we can only appreciate happiness when we have experienced sadness, we can only savor fulfillment when we have also tasted disappointment. It is the contrast and our willingness to embrace the entire keyboard of emotions that results in a truly meaningful life. In order to cultivate the ability to cope with the more challenging ones, we first need to choose to do so. Understanding the benefit of making this choice helps to pave the way for us to do the hard work of learning discipline, sacrifice, delayed gratification, patience, persistence, grit, and stamina. The only true way to make beautiful music out of your one and only life is to play all the keys.