Pain Is Unavoidable, Suffering Is an Option

Pain and suffering are not one in the same.

Posted Aug 17, 2020

It’s funny—when I think about the most painful experiences in my life, both physically and emotionally, I notice that the amount of hurt I felt at the time is not proportional to how much I shudder when I look back on those moments. 

For example, nothing caused as much pure, mind-numbing pain than giving birth! Yet even in the toughest moments, I felt pride and excitement. But when I get a mosquito bite, I complain and moan for days. Suffering galore!

Judged by the level of pain alone, giving birth is a million times worse than a mosquito bite. So, what governs the amount of suffering we experience?

Spoiler alert: The secret ingredient behind how much we suffer from painful experiences lies in the way we think about pain. 

What is pain?

Defining pain is simple. It’s an unpleasant physical sensation—either mild (like an itchy elbow), extreme (like a broken bone), or somewhere in between. It can also be an unpleasant, raw emotional experience. Raw emotion is an automatic and simple feeling, one that a first-grader could name—anger, sadness, fear, joy.

Pain is something we’ve all felt and all will feel again. It’s universal and unavoidable. Nobody can truly say they've led a completely painless existence. Even people with the rare genetic condition of congenital insensitivity to pain can feel unpleasant emotions.

Pain is useful

That’s because pain is important and useful to us as humans. Physical pain tells us to avoid harmful things. That’s why you don’t have to mull over the idea before pulling your hand back from a hot stove—the pain makes your body recoil quickly. It also tells us to slow down when we push ourselves too hard. When your legs hurt from biking for miles, you know you should take a break before you put too much stress on them and cause an injury.

Emotional pain is similarly helpful. It may seem counter-intuitive, but sadness is actually vital to our well-being. If, for example, we didn’t care about our pets, we wouldn’t be sad if they died. Sadness also signals to those around us that we need to be consoled and supported, and in the other direction, gives us the basic foundation for empathy.

In summary, pain is:

  • Necessary and unavoidable
  • Clean and simple, even if unpleasant
  • A “raw” experience that isn’t over-processed by thoughts

What is suffering?

Unlike pain, suffering is messy. I like to think of it as something we wrap around pain like layers of gift wrap—you can pile it on, and it makes the original piece seem much bigger and more complicated, but it’s not necessary.

Here’s what suffering looks like in action:

  • “Why is this arthritis happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”
  • “I always have the worst luck. I can’t believe my flight was canceled!”
  • “I hate this cramping so much. When will it ever end?”
  • “These migraines are never going to go away. I can’t take it.”
  • “How come I ended up with the flu but my partner didn't? It’s not fair.”
  • “I’m young and healthy—I shouldn’t have back pain!”

You may notice that all of these examples are thoughts—things you might say to yourself. We all talk to ourselves constantly, maybe not out loud, or even through an inner monologue, but our brains do use words to describe and understand the world, including our own experiences in it.

You may also notice that these thoughts don’t accept the pain. When I say "accept," I'm not describing giving up. Accepting means acknowledging that that pain is there and then simply allowing it to be.

This is what really sets pain and suffering apart—pain simply is; suffering cannot sit still. Suffering wrestles with the pain, trying to deny it, or bargain with it, judging it, blaming it on someone, projecting into the future, regretting it from the past. By doing all this, suffering becomes the center of your experience.

An important note: none of the thoughts of suffering actually diminish the pain. Just because you keep telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling this bad doesn’t mean you’ll feel better. In fact, "should" tends to make you feel worse because now you’ve added layers of frustration, confusion, and indignation—all unnecessary layers of gift wrap!—to the original piece of pain.

These complications apply to emotional pain and suffering, too. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “My stupid anxiety makes me so miserable. What’s wrong with me?”
  • “What if I never get over this breakup? I can’t handle this.”
  • “I shouldn’t be feeling so low. Other people have it even worse.”

When you judge an emotion like fear—"What's wrong with me?"—what could be simple anxiety is now anxiety plus shame

When you judge sadness as a weakness, grief becomes grief plus guilt plus pressure to act happy even when happiness isn't an authentic emotion.

When you time travel, projecting heartbreak into the future, you're forced to carry your potential heartbreak plus all of its imaginary friends in the pit of your stomach.

No wonder suffering feels so much heavier than pain!

Stock-Asso/Shutterstock
Source: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock

How to let go of suffering

Point blank, suffering sucks. So how do we get rid of it? 

1. Let go of the idea that we can “get rid of” any experience we have

Many of my patients aren’t fans of this recommendation. They (rightfully) wonder, “Isn’t the whole point of therapy to get rid of bad feelings?”

But when was the last time you won a tug-of-war with anxiety or got rid of sadness for good? Our thoughts and emotions are real. We will never stop experiencing them, and the more we try, the harder they come back, clamoring for attention.

So instead of trying to struggle against suffering, let’s first accept that you are suffering. Let go of the goal to get rid of suffering. Turn your attention to what’s wrapped up inside the suffering—the pain.

2. Fully experience the pain and sit with it nonjudgmentally

Whether it’s physical or emotional, simply sit with the feeling of pain without any distractions.

If you find your mind judging the experience (“This is unfair! I hate this!”), that’s OK. Take a breath and gently get back to the “clean” experience of the original piece of pain—feel what it feels like, see where it is, watch it ebb and flow.

The point of this exercise is not to pretend that the pain feels good or is meaningless. Listen to what your body needs—it might be an ambulance, or it might be a change in position or a moment of nonjudgmental stillness.

3. Recognize the stories your mind tells you about the pain

While you are sitting with your pain, you’ll probably notice your mind telling you stories about the pain:

  • “My life has just been one big disappointment since I lost my job.”
  • “I have to keep my anxiety under control or I’ll fall apart.”
  • “Nobody wants to be with someone who's depressed.”

In each of these examples, you can insert almost any unpleasant experience, sensation, or emotion. Notice how these stories make the pain the center of your identity as if it determines who you are and what your life means.

But you can catch these stories as your brain tells them and call them out for what they are—simply stories. You don’t have to believe them or follow their lead. 

4. Get back to allowing the pain

Now that you’ve caught your brain telling you these stories, you don’t have to feel bad about them or get rid of them. Remember, there’s no way to get rid of your painful experiences—it’s enough to have noticed them. Once you have, gently turn your attention back to the pure, original pain and spend a little more time with it. Breathe into it and say, “It’s OK that you’re there. I accept you.”

Of course, this will not rid you of your pain. Don’t expect these steps to take away your bruised knee or a broken heart. The point isn’t to avoid pain—pain is unavoidable. The point is to notice and let go of suffering.