Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Choice Is a Balm for Human Suffering

How a simple philosophical shift can help you lead a less tortured life.

Key points

  • When you're stuck in suffering, change your narrative so you see your choices.
  • Connect with your creativity to author a different future.
  • Use your imagination strategically to start your blueprint.
  • Filter your past to boost the power of your imagination.
Source: Mikkelwilliam/iStockphoto

At the core of human suffering are a sense of entrapment and a storm of emotions that comes pelting down relentlessly. When you find yourself in this closed and endless loop, your life’s meaning may take a hit, deflating you in the process. Without the motivation to change, you might simply stand and observe your suffering, waiting for it to pass or wishing it would go away. For so many people, this suffering seems endless, and hope is invisible and impossible to recruit.

How do you manage life when it feels empty, lacks luster, and is filled with anguish you cannot release? One key goal is to shift your narrative until you can see that you have choices that were previously invisible. The mechanism behind this narrative shift is not obvious, but there are a few steps that you can take to engage in the process.

Start a new chapter

You may think you have as much power as life has given you. But what if you could author a different reality? Our sense of our own power often comes from how much money, influence, or worldly success we've had. These prior outcomes fossilize our possibilities. The future becomes self-determined when we accept the past as a definition of our future or when the past rules every future moment. Called "temporal disintegration"1, this is quite common when one experiences trauma, but it is a reintegration we must seek. To author your own life, it is important to start a new chapter in which your past has little negative influence on your self-concept.

How do you start this new chapter?

Metaphorically speaking, you turn the page from your present suffering and move toward a happier ending. To do this, you must write this story. It helps to remind yourself with self-talk like, “I no longer need this suffering to define me,” and, “I am defined by what I will create rather than the passivity of my past.”2 This requires being self-critical as well as having self-respect. The criticism can come as, “I have been wrong to live in the past and impose this template on my future.”

Once you’ve made this shift, how do you start?

Authors, by their very nature, are creative. You must abandon reality as you experience it and commit to your creativity. Possibilities are essentially fictional until they become real. Yet, like an architect’s plans, they are a necessary fiction for the new life you are building. Don’t be misled into reality. Remember that your plan for a new life requires a blueprint that you can build.

Most people can imagine a different life, but they hold themselves back from this because they are compelled to connect this to their current reality. Imagination is your true wealth because you can build anything with it. The human brain sometimes cannot tell the difference between imagination and perception3, and when you own your imagination and commit to what you want, this distinction becomes even more obscure. You will start to embody these possibilities.

Why imagine?

Mental imagery is a motivational amplifier4. In addition, it helps you generate options, and feel more emotionally connected to your goal5. In the brain, a tinkering process helps combine old ideas to create new ones6.

Filtering the past

The brain’s memory centers greatly influence what you can imagine7. Therefore, if your automatic habit circuits recall mostly past pain, finding any hopeful path toward the future will be difficult.

Your first step should be to collect positive and negative experiences. Then, in the positive column (wins), list or reflect on how this can contribute to your future wins. In the “losses” column, list or reflect on what you learned, and what you will not repeat. Contemplate how you could even do the opposite of this.


Shifting your narrative to choice through imagination will put you in a great position to author your story. Through this self-authoring, you will see that your imagination is the birthplace of choice, and that choice is your path out of your current suffering.


(1) Holman, E. A.; Silver, R. C. Getting “Stuck” in the Past: Temporal Orientation and Coping with Trauma. J Pers Soc Psychol 1998, 74 (5), 1146–1163.

(2) Kim, J.; Kwon, J. H.; Kim, J.; Kim, E. J.; Kim, H. E.; Kyeong, S.; Kim, J.-J. The Effects of Positive or Negative Self-Talk on the Alteration of Brain Functional Connectivity by Performing Cognitive Tasks. Sci Rep 2021, 11, 14873.

(3) Dijkstra, N.; Mazor, M.; Kok, P.; Fleming, S. Mistaking Imagination for Reality: Congruent Mental Imagery Leads to More Liberal Perceptual Detection. Cognition 2021, 212, 104719.

(4) Renner, F.; Murphy, F. C.; Ji, J. L.; Manly, T.; Holmes, E. A. Mental Imagery as a “Motivational Amplifier” to Promote Activities. Behav Res Ther 2019, 114, 51–59.

(5) D’Argembeau, A.; Xue, G.; Lu, Z.-L.; Van der Linden, M.; Bechara, A. Neural Correlates of Envisioning Emotional Events in the near and Far Future. Neuroimage 2008, 40 (1), 398–407.

(6) Agnati, L. F.; Guidolin, D.; Battistin, L.; Pagnoni, G.; Fuxe, K. The Neurobiology of Imagination: Possible Role of Interaction-Dominant Dynamics and Default Mode Network. Front Psychol 2013, 4, 296.

(7) Gaesser, B.; Spreng, R. N.; McLelland, V. C.; Addis, D. R.; Schacter, D. L. Imagining the Future: Evidence for a Hippocampal Contribution to Constructive Processing. Hippocampus 2013, 23, 1150–1161.

More from Srini Pillay M.D.
More from Psychology Today