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The Three Ways We Deal (or Not) With Suffering

Allow suffering to make you a deeper, stronger, fuller person.

Suffering, painful events, and bad things happening to us as human beings; this is something we all go through in life. We are going to suffer. It’s inevitable. It’s part of the human condition, and it’s just part of being alive. Sometimes bad things happen to us, and we suffer.

Even now, some of us may be in the hospital because of an illness. Others may be heartbroken because of the end of a loving relationship. Or we may be suffering severe depression because we haven’t been able to find work for several years. We all have our own stories about suffering, and we all have suffered.

In this post, I want to look at “How can we deal with suffering? What are our options?” There are three options we can choose: we can suppress our feelings, we can feel them, or we can grow from them. Let me explain.

The first option, “We can suppress them,” is often the most tempting and easiest option, and it therefore is what many, many people choose to do. It’s one reason there is so much suffering in the world, because when we suppress our suffering, it doesn’t go away; it just gets put aside for a little bit, and then we need to suppress it more and more.

Let me use an example to illustrate this. Have you ever gone to a movie or watched a television show where someone breaks up with the love of their life, and then they go off and get really drunk for two or three days in a row, come out of it, and then they move on? No, that’s not what happens. The drunken bender doesn’t solve a thing. The suffering returns. All they have done is suppress it.

This is an amazingly common scenario. When we suffer, we often turn to substances or sometimes to other people. In other words, we turn to things outside of ourselves to try to turn off the suffering. I once gave a talk to a group of people about suffering, and a woman came up to me later and said, “You’re exactly right, Dr. Puff. My husband died five years ago and, within a year, I remarried. I didn’t want to face the loss of my husband so I remarried thinking it would resolve my suffering, and it hasn’t gone well.”

There are an infinite number of examples that I could give about this way of dealing with suffering, because people choose this suppress-the-feelings option all the time. Suffering occurs. Instead of feeling it, we numb it. But that doesn’t work for very long so we have to keep numbing it, and so we turn to more and more addictions to help us not feel our feelings.

There are an infinite number of ways or "addictions" that we can turn to so we won’t feel our feelings — from food to prescription medications, to relationships, to keeping super busy, and the list goes on and on. We all know what they are because we’ve all done it. Instead of feeling our feelings, we try to distract ourselves. We turn to these addictions because they work; they do shut off the pain, temporarily. The problem is that, over time, what starts with us eating a box of cookies because we’re sad, ends up with us being 300 pounds overweight; now we’re really depressed and so we continue to turn to our addiction for food.

The second option we can take when dealing with suffering is that we can feel our pain. Some call it “owning” our pain. If we feel our pain, it is challenging to us. Going back to the example of losing a loved one, we do suffer when we feel that loss. It can be very sad; it can be tragic; there can be a lot of tears; there can be anger that flows from that loss. However, what happens is that feeling or owning the pain helps us get better. Our suffering heals, and then we move on.

If we choose this second option of dealing with our pain and suffering, then the third option occurs. We can grow from our feelings of suffering. We can learn from our experience, our suffering, and adapt that experience into our lives because the pain is healed. We have then put ourselves in a position to use these experiences of suffering as learning tools for making good choices throughout the rest of our lives.

Now let’s take this talk about suffering to a deeper level, about how life is ultimately fair in regards to suffering. Fair? Did I say suffering is fair in life? Yes, I did. That statement may ruffle a few feathers, but I want you to hang in there and let me explain what I mean. If you don’t mind, I’m also going to use God in this analogy, just to help us understand how the universe, or in this case God, is ultimately gracious and kind in regards to human suffering.

What most people do when they experience suffering is they choose the first option I talked about – they numb it. And, guess what, the numbing really works! It doesn’t totally take it away, but it does work. It’s very unhealthy for us in the long run, but it works and it’s an option that we take as we go through life and we just keep numbing our feelings.

That’s why addictions or numbing our feelings work so well, because they take the feelings away. It’s only a temporary fix, of course, and we have to keep returning to our addictions to continue numbing the pain, but addictions do work and this is the choice most people make. In the long run, it’s not very good for us, but it does take away our pain.

I know a lot of people struggle with kids and suffering. They say, “Well, Dr. Puff, what about little kids? They suffer. They can’t take the pain away.” I work with little kids all the time and they go through some very horrific things. What ultimately happens with children is that, when they go through suffering, they actually shut down. It’s almost like God puts a natural painkiller inside of them so that they are able to withdraw from the pain.

The first time they may actually confront and deal with the pain is when they are in therapy with me. Or they suppress it until later in their life when they’re adults, and they finally decide they need to deal with their pain. Mostly what they do is distract themselves from their pain. Literally, I’ve had many people talk about how they see themselves floating up in a corner watching themselves being abused and not even feeling pain until they get into therapy with me. Most of what they’ve done in their life is run away from the pain.

So, of course, it isn’t healthy for us to use "painkillers" or "addictions" in order to numb our feelings. But we choose the addictions because they work, so that’s why we use them. I think God may have put those addictions there because He doesn’t really want us to suffer. So He gives “pain killers” as a way to help us go through life when life is hard and challenging.

However, we do have another choice. We can make the choice to feel the feelings, to own them, to confront them head on, to deal with them, and that’s when the real pain kicks in. When we start feeling, our suffering it really is painful, and it sucks. The good news is that, by feeling the pain and the suffering, we get better. So yes, now there is pain, but there’s an end to this pain when we deal with it, when we confront it, when we feel our feelings. We get better and we heal.

I think recovering alcoholics are excellent examples of this. When they’re drinking, they are in pain, so they drink and the alcohol helps them numb their pain. What’s challenging for them is that, when they stop drinking, all of a sudden all of that pain comes back, and it’s very difficult for them. In order to deal with the pain, they go to AA meetings to get support, and they work through their pain, and then they can start working on improving their lives. In the end, when we go through our pain, we walk away from it a deeper, richer, fuller person. Experiencing suffering and dealing with it successfully helps us grow, makes us grow.

Often there’s a direct correlation between the amount of suffering we experience and the amount of growth that we experience. If you ever want to prove this point to yourself, just think of a person you know that you feel has done the most with their life --- that very deep, deep person that you know and admire. If you know them personally, go ask them their life story. If you don’t know them personally, seek out their biography, particularly if they are famous, and see how much suffering they went through to get to where they’re at.

I think you will find, without exception, that people that are very deep have gone through a great deal of suffering. That’s just how life works; we grow through suffering. Yes it’s hard, yes it’s challenging. People who have dealt with suffering and have come out on the other side are not likely to say they wish that they could go through it again, but they all do realize that their suffering was important in making them who they are right now. Without that suffering, the great depth inside of them wouldn’t be there.

This is why I think the universe, or God, is ultimately fair. Remember when I said that earlier? I think God is fair because God has given us three choices about how to deal with our suffering. We can decide to numb it and not feel it, which is what most people do. And there are an infinite number ways of shutting off our feelings that work. So we can choose that option. Of course, it isn’t the option I recommend, but it is an option. If we choose it, it does work in the short term, which just causes us to need more of it, but it does keep working. On the other hand, we can feel our feelings and that’s hard to do. But in the end, when we come through that process, we’re a deeper, fuller, more spiritually grounded being, and that’s good. That’s the benefit of going through suffering and not suppressing it. In the end, it turns out well.