Dismantling The Cycle of Suffering: How to Lean in to Discomfort

by Suzanne Friesner, LMSW and Kim McGowan, MA, LLP

After the death of another family member in the last month, a little boy questioned why anyone would choose to love. To love means to suffer the loss of the loved one, and therefore deciding not to love anymore implies safety. This desire to escape suffering is the crux of all existential questions, “What’s the point of…?” If you are human, you don’t get to decide if you suffer or not, but you are able to influence how long and how bad the suffering is going to be. Life offers plenty of opportunities for suffering. If we can find our way to tolerate living with what is, rather than what “should” be, we may escape the grasp of ongoing desperation and pain. Let’s address how we may minimize the duration and the depth of the suffering we encounter.

We can list many reasons for suffering, such as:

  • rejection
  • abandonment
  • loss
  • loneliness
  • insecurity
  • judgement/criticism

At the core of our being, we have come to believe a “truth” about who we are, and what we are worth. When we are hurting and vulnerable, we revert back to the primal wounds of not feeling good enough, not feeling loved, not feeling wanted; and so, we suffer. We may also have come to believe at times that if we are living life “correctly,” in an ideal way that leaves no place for weakness or vulnerability, we won’t have to suffer. But is that a true or reasonable expectation?

There are those that have tried to escape the pain of suffering via drugs or alcohol, and those that become suicidal as the ultimate escape from suffering. Some become aggressive or homicidal in an attempt to reclaim a sense of power and control over suffering. These are some unhealthy exits from the perceived world of pain. Others may try to distract themselves with sensual pleasures such as eating, sex, or buying things; excessive work, or business, so that the time alone with one’s thoughts is minimized.

Much of our suffering is not about what happened to us. It comes from what we tell ourselves about the meaning of what has happened to us. We are story tellers, and we try to make sense of the world by telling ourselves the story of what is happening. However, if events (what just happened) caused feelings, everyone who experienced the same event would have the same feeling or emotional response. We do not react in the same way as every other person, because we all have our own internal narrator who tells us the meaning of the story we are living. There are those who live in peace and those that live in despair, but ultimately, they are living in the same world. It is the perspective that makes the difference.

It is easy to tell and retell the story through the eyes of suffering. It goes something like this: “I can’t stand it. It will never get better. Nobody cares about my suffering. If they do, then I am a burden to them. They would be better off without me. I would be better off dead so I don’t hurt anymore. I should kill myself.” This is what I call the suicidal recipe.

The antidote is the dismantling of this toxic narrative. It would sound something like this: “I may not like it, but I have been through hard things before. This too will pass. There are people that care about me. I am not alone. I can make a step forward. I have choices. I can make a difference. I have value.”

 What can we do for ourselves in times of suffering? How do we talk to ourselves so that we get out of bed and move forward in life with some sense of meaning? We need to practice mental flexibility. This means living in the here and now, and radically accepting what is versus what we wish it would be. It also means letting go of what we think we “should” be doing, and instead focusing on the resources and opportunities available to us in the NOW. To win against suffering, we must stop resisting it, as contrary as that may seem. This is what is meant by leaning in to suffering. To acknowledge it, name it, accept it and pass through it by caring for ourselves.

We can practice caring for ourselves by:

  • using deep breathing
  • grounding ourselves using the five senses
  • meditation
  • Yin Yoga
  • engaging in therapy
  • practicing gratitude
    • Start a journal of gratitude. Write down three things you are grateful for each day, then at the end of six weeks, you will have rewired your brain to search out what is good in the world, instead of what is hurting you in the world. This shift is visible in brain imaging. We have the power to move our emotional state.

Another skill that is helpful to use in times of suffering is known at the RAIN technique. It has been published by Tara Brach, and was originated by Michele McDonald. The technique is an anagram standing for: Recognize Allow Investigate Nurture. You can read more about it here.

To summarize, we have heard that: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This can be a hard belief to accept as it is so much easier to blame, shame and avoid. However, to answer the little boy who asked why he should continue to love, he must remember that his love is unstoppable. His love gives purpose and meaning to his world. His love is the balm for, not the cause of, suffering.