Is Suffering Optional?

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.

She states:

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.

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5 Responses to Is Suffering Optional?

  1. Cyndi says:

    This is a very interesting post!

    I’d invite anyone who thought that PTSD can be “happy thoughted” away to come spend a week with my kids. What I’ve learned by parenting my formerly foster kids and now forever kids, is that PTSD is much more prevalent than we ever expected. We expect it to be related to a series of hellish events like war or a natural disaster. I’ve also learned that it’s incredibly physiological in nature, with many of the symptoms being physical events. I mean, we wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to just get over it or to stop thinking about it so it will get better.

    What I’ve come to believe is that treatment is necessary for re-learning proper responses to triggers. Then, the support system must recognize the trauma, be aware of it, and work on creating positive experiences to outweigh the negative ones. For instance: my daughter experienced trauma in the bathtub and when she moved in with us, she was deathly afraid of baths. I’m talking kicking, screaming, biting fits of absolute fear. My job is to help her realize that bath time is fun and it’s good to be clean, so even though she’s at the age she can do without all the toddler things, we do bubbles, toys, bath crayons, and make it a play session. After about a year (which is 20% of her life so far) she started becoming excited about bath time and the fear responses lessened.

    One thing I’ve been working on inside myself is that rationally, I do not feel any emotion can be “wrong.” That we just feel how we feel, and while a feeling can be inappropriate, it still exists and needs to be handled honestly. It’s hard, and thank God for therapists!

  2. kyoungpsyd says:

    Hi Cyndi-

    Thanks so much for posting and sharing your first hand experience as a parent of children with trauma related issues. How wonderful for them to have a parent that really “gets it”!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Amy Kiel says:

    What a valuable point you have made here. As a trauma survivor I often find myself perplexed by not feeling able to think myself out of a depressed state or time filled with unexplained anxiety. I often find myself feeling at fault and as if I have let myself and the world around me down by not having enough “power” to get out of this “funk” or difficult period. And like you said, that sense of blame and guilt only makes matters worse. What is so important to recognize is how we are in need of recognizing and informing the world of this fact that “trauma interferes and alters people’s biology, psychology, and neurology it needs some targeted repair.” (from your quote by Seligman) The more we can work “through” the pain and inform the world, the more we will be able to live in a more peaceful and accepting state! Great post, thank you!!!

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      Great to read your thoughts on this, Amy!

      Sometime I think it helps to see the anxiety or depression as clues to other things beneath the surface. Obviously, none of us wants to be stuck in depression, but maybe the answer is to address other underlying feelings and issues (like the prior traumatic experiences and resulting feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, to name a few that come to mind). Most people need help, “targeted repair” to deal with trauma symptoms.

      We definitely need to keep educating ourselves and others about these issues and what it takes to heal. And to just be gentle with ourselves and each other in the midst of the process.

  4. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: Is Suffering Optional? | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Tucson

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