Overcoming Unnecessary Suffering

Much of suffering in developed countries is self-created but can be overcome.

Posted Oct 06, 2013

Existence is suffering. This is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. To exist, to be alive, is to suffer. Some may initially want to argue this, and say they aren’t suffering. But their internal, and often verbal, dialogue would challenge their statement. As the comedian Louie CK states, “People in other countries have real problems. Like…Oh, [shoot]. They’re cutting off our heads, Today! Things like that. Here, we make up [stuff] to be upset about.” Consider for a minute how many conversations you have where someone is complaining.

Some psychoanalytic theorists (Freud, Klein) believed humans had a death drive, an unconscious part that drives one toward demise. It has been postulated (in my article “How Recognizing Your Death Drive Can Save You”) the death drive can materialize as self-sabotaging behavior (related to aggression turned inward). This, in turn, leads to one’s suffering.

If you prefer a more humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow discussed the Jonah Complex. In the Jonah Complex one fears their success, and runs from it. Sometimes this running can be in a psychological fashion, such as self-sabotaging. The fear of achieving beyond others, of being arrogant, of facing the responsibilities that come with greatness, leads one to not try, or to self-sabotage and fail. Regardless of the psychological school you prefer, it is more than evident that often people create their own suffering, (this is not addressing legitimate suffering, such as not having enough food, shelter, fearing for one’s life, etc).

Buddhism goes on to explain how suffering can be overcome. But even in Eastern philosophy there are differing views of the benefit of suffering and its role in life. For some, suffering is not to be overcome, but to be embraced. In Yoga and in some other practices of mindfulness, pain is to be embraced, felt, and allowed its full expression. It is believed that avoiding it leads to further suffering. This is one of the themes in the excellent book, “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search For Meaning”, discusses how a colleague expressed hope that Frankl’s Logotherapy would, “help counteract certain unhealthy trends” which contribute to the sufferer being “not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy.”

Louis CK, (quoted above) discusses how by attempting to avoid pain we also cut off joy (you can watch his video about existential angst and smart phones here). He postulates in order to experience joy fully, we have to experience pain fully. (He is certainly not the first or only person to purport this, but his recent viral video makes it more topical). So, there are arguments suggesting suffering can be beneficial or warranted. But much is unnecessary, and self created.

In psychotherapy practice, as well as personally, I have witnessed many people (including myself) create suffering. This can be done by the choices made in life, or by one’s chosen state of mind. Whether it is the Death Instinct, the Jonah Complex, or some other theory that postulates why it occurs, it exists. Humans, no matter what their walk of life, suffer. At times it is necessary to experience the pain that comes with life. But at other times, it is unnecessary and dysfunctional, and can be overcome.

There is a saying in Eastern mindfulness philosophy, that if you are depressed you are focused on the past, anxious you are focused in the future. Peace only exists in the present moment. The idea of being present is the solution to created suffering (quite possibly all suffering is created, but that is for another article). First, if you are feeling sad about something, feel it. Really feel it, allow its full expression. Be in the moment with the pain. Allow it to come and pass, as all things do. Do not hold it longer, or discard it too soon. Be with it.

Second, if you are ruminating and creating your pain and suffering, breathe. Take a deep breath, and let the thoughts go. Realize you are not your thoughts; you can control them. Of course this can be a struggle. Habitual ways of thinking and other unconscious forces may be struggling to control you. But you are ultimately in control. In the present moment there is no thought, there is no unconscious force. There is only the moment. Keep mindful of your breathing. Come back to your breath and create space in your thoughts.

Next, take an existential view. Remember you have choices. Remember you will eventually die, and time slips away quickly. Then, finally, while being mindful decide who you want to be in the moment. Are you too anxious? Be the calm individual you want to be. Depressed? Create a mantra for yourself that focuses on the change you want to be. Focus on the beauty and wonder in your life, everything you have to be grateful for. Stay in the moment; experience the wonder of your life. Be present with whatever you are doing, and the created suffering dissipates.

Of course everything is easier on paper. This will take a great deal of practice, and the unconscious and habitual ways of behaving will win sometimes. Perhaps it will win a great deal in the beginning. But if you can increase the control in your life by even a few minutes a week, that is far more control than you may have had previously. With continued effort and practice you will be able to overcome, or perhaps more realistically diminish, self-created suffering.


CK, Louis; 2013; from Conan O’Brien / TeamCoco. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/20/louis-ck-beautiful-rant-against-texting-while-driving_n_3961466.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=3160122b=facebook

Feist, J; Feist, G; Roberts, T; 2013; Theories of Personality

Frankl, Viktor; 2006; Man’s search for meaning, pg 114.