My title is prompted by the oft repeated phrase: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
What is your experience of this? Is suffering optional? Is that even a desirable goal? Or are there experiences that automatically cause suffering? Is there a function to “suffering” or feeling one’s feelings fully that is crucial to healing?
Sometime I post quotes of the day on Twitter. I like searching for and finding a phrase that resonates, speaks to some inner truth for me. Recently I chose “We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full” by Marcel Proust. What this means to me is that the way out of suffering is through it. That what trauma sufferers need is to fully experience and express the full range of emotions associated with traumatic events to heal from them.
This flies in the face of our culture’s conventional wisdom. The “wisdom” that says things like: forget about the past, let it go, it is over and done with, you can make yourself happy (and by implication if you are not happy, it is your fault).
If only it were that simple! My experience is that many trauma survivors HAVE tried to think themselves happy, to forget about the past and move on. Sometimes this even works for a while, maybe until unexplained symptoms crop up or something triggers a flood of traumatic remembering. The general public still understand so little about post traumatic stress responses and symptoms. The last thing a survivor needs is to also feel blamed or judged for her/his natural responses to traumatic experiences.
On the surface, the recent upsurge of focus on “Positive Therapy” may seem like it is encouraging one to adopt a falsely happy persona vs. looking at the painful past.
I recently came across an article by Dr. Gudrun Frerichs, Is Happy-ology The Panacea For Trauma? that addresses some of these issues as well.
Seligman clearly states that positive psychology has not shown so far that it is a useful approach for dealing with traumatic experiences (Martin Seligmann, 2008, The Positive Psychology Leaders Series). Because trauma interferes and alters people’s biology, psychology, and neurology it needs some targeted repair.
I have also been pondering what happiness means to us. Is happiness the absence of negative emotions? Is it problematic to even label some emotions as negative? My hope for clients is that they find a sense of peace within themselves and wholeness, which includes the ability to experience the whole range of emotions.
Because our culture is so phobic about emotional pain this may not be well received by others around you. It may also be that you need to learn a new set of skill for identifying, expressing and managing your feelings. Learning how to at times focus on the positive in your life may be one of these coping skills.
I do believe that learning adaptive emotion management skills is possible and valuable. And that fully feeling or even “suffering” in the aftermath of wounding and trauma is a necessary part of healing.
Kathleen Young, Psy.D.