Throwback Thursday: Is Suffering Optional?

Welcome back to Treating Trauma and revisiting older posts on Thursdays! Today I am sharing some thoughts about trauma and suffering.

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 Throwback Thursday: Is Suffering Optional?

  1. birdfeeder says:

    Oh, what a great post. Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this.

    If I hear one more person doing the ‘happy happy’ finger-wag at me or the survivors in my group I think I’m going to scream. (Funny, I’m pretty sure if you called them on it, they’d know they were being nagging and condescending to a victim)

    I’m considering dragging around some pictures and videos of real violence and abuse and showing it to the happy-happy finger wagers next time they try that – so they’ll get a better idea of exactly what it is they are asking victims to ‘just let go’, or ‘just accept’, or my favourite ‘just observe without judgement’. (Despite not being able to show what most victims have actually gone through, you can find lots and lots of real and very graphic violence – even against children – on Youtube; they have their own grass roots public-warning campaign going on there!)

  2. Gertrude says:

    the forever happy meme closely resembles dissociation, something i am already great at, suffering from CPTSD/DID. Although it sounded enticing in the very beginning of Louise Hay and her causes book, it has lost its charm. For many people it is simply denial reminding me of the neglect and denial of my many negative emotional states, accompanying prenatal and subsequent trauma by my parents and siblings. In time i found i have no neediness for happiness or for the absence of suffering. In a world where so many people suffer, without having asked for it, i feel i have just been dealt my part by cosmic forces. What i do find important is acceptance, recognition of others, a clear given right of existence of who i am and as an adult into transforming prenatal/early childhood trauma, now chose to be. Conscious that i am the one who makes the choices that will influence the next 7 generations, i am kind of proud not to have that need for denial and emotional neglect/murder and abuse my parents and siblings apparently needed. What i do need is more tools in how to build resilience to stand it all, to stand the moments that death seems so much more preferable. Suffering from avoidant attachment i also need to accept my inability to have any relationship, including with my now adult children, who because of my traumas suffer their own anxious attachment, because i raised them mainly from my strong dissociated part, which sometimes collapsed, like a house of cards, in an unborn foetus, leading to a yearning for death, a return to where i came from prior to all this traumatizing from the moment of conception.

    • Mel says:

      Thank you Dr. Young for this post. Life seems so long. At times too long.. The relief of feeling when the work to come out of suffering – when knowing the tide has turned – is always supremely profound. Suffering as an option? Maybe for some in certain instances. But I doubt there are many who suffer ptsd or complex ptsd, to be found amongst them – when it comes to trauma anguish.

  3. Mel says:

    Question: do you have an article on ‘ learning adaptive emotion management skills ‘ ?

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