When Pain Becomes Suffering (aka “Pain is Not the Problem”)

This post is part of a series about “should“: How “should” is often the source of our suffering, how we make ourselves feel worse by telling ourselves we should be feeling better, and how acceptance is the key to dismantling our internal “should”. Here is the short version: An unwanted event (let’s say, being cut off in traffic) doesn’t usually make us upset for very long. What makes us upset is our insistence that things should be different (“that person shouldn’t have cut me off!”). We often make ourselves feel even worse by having reactions to our reactions, which I call “stacking” (for example, feeling stupid about feeling angry about being cut off in traffic). We can escape this cycle of suffering by accepting reality (“I feel stupid about feeling angry about being cut off, and I really do feel angry right now, and that’s the reality”). Accepting reality is not the same thing as becoming passive or fatalistic. We can still strive for a better future while accepting the present reality.

A dear friend was kind enough to write to me in response to the previous blog post (“How to Stop Hurting Ourselves“). Since my friend wrote so eloquently, I think it’s best just to quote her, and then add a few comments of my own. I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify my meaning.

This process [interrupting stacking] feels most useful to navigate self-criticism and insecurity, but you also suggest that it is important when thinking about the “shoulds” of the world, not just of the self. But this feels harder and more complicated in some way.

You wrote, “resisting the way things are, right now, makes me feel bad and doesn’t change anything.” While I think this is partly true, it’s not obvious to me why “feeling bad” is a thing to avoid. Feeling bad, as you rightly identify, may not directly effect change, but “feeling bad” can sometimes be significant and full of meaning. Badness – the anger, fear, sadness, grief, whatever – is sometimes the seat of caring, curiosity, even motivation. And those “bad feelings,” in my view, don’t necessarily represent resistance to the way things are.

To take perhaps the most pressing example — can’t I feel sad that random people are dying from COVID, wish for things to be different than they are, and somehow accept the unfairness of what is happening? Maybe it’s all about being mindful about where our attention lies and accepting ourselves/our feelings with kindness.

Thank you for taking the time to think about this so deeply, and to express your thoughts so clearly. I am grateful for the energy you put into this. I hope my response here will help clarify my view, and I welcome any thoughts or questions that you or anyone else would be kind enough to share.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad – sad or angry or frustrated or afraid or anything else. Whatever you feel is okay. In a sense, that’s the whole point of interrupting the stacking: Whatever you feel is okay. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that it’s wrong to feel bad. What I am saying is that while pain is unavoidable, suffering is something we do to ourselves by resisting pain, by protesting against the very existence of pain at this very moment. For the sake of this discussion, when I say “pain” I mean “the initial experience”, which does not yet involve resistance.

Here’s a trivial example. I want to go hiking, and then it starts to rain. I don’t want to hike in the rain, so I stay home. I’m disappointed about not going on a hike. That is pain. It’s raining, I’m disappointed, and I accept that this is how things are right now. Then I find something else to do. I could get really upset about the rain: This was my one chance to go on a hike this entire month, why is the world not letting me do this one thing that I enjoy, life is horrible, etc. That would be resisting the state of the world, that would be stacking negative emotions, and causing myself suffering. Better if I can accept the pain and move on. Soon enough I’d get distracted and stop feeling the pain. Sooner than if I dwell on it, to be sure.

Here’s another trivial example. I accidentally cut my finger while chopping carrots, and it hurts. No amount of acceptance will change that. That is pain. My finger hurts, and I accept that this is how things are right now. I wash my finger and put a band-aid on it. The pain motivates me to do something useful, and probably helps me be more careful next time. I could make the experience much worse for myself by berating myself for being clumsy, calling myself names, and making bleak predictions regarding the future health of my remaining fingers, all because I accidentally cut my finger. But I don’t have to do that to myself. I don’t have to turn the pain into suffering, by telling myself that it shouldn’t exist, that by existing the pain is showing me that there’s something wrong with me. I accept the pain. Maybe I do something to reduce it, or to make it less likely to happen in the future. Maybe not.

Back to my friend’s much more significant example. People are dying from COVID-19, and there’s nothing fair about it. The disease is disproportionately affecting some people through no fault of their own, and some people are making things worse, whether by being personally inconsiderate or by neglecting their responsibilities as leaders. Rather than accidentally cutting my finger, this can feel like a piece of my soul is cut. That is pain. People are dying, some people are criminally inconsiderate, and I am very sad. And I accept this is how things are right now. This doesn’t mean I accept that this is fair, or that this is how things will always be. Just that this is how things are right now: This is how the world is, and this is how I am, right now. I accept the pain. Maybe I do something to reduce it, or to make it less likely to happen in the future. Maybe not.

Pain itself is not the problem. Pain is not wrong. Resisting the existence of pain is what causes suffering. The pain, as many have said before, is just a sign that we are alive.