Most people who seek mental-health services wish to alleviate their suffering, a common cause of stress. However, suffering often serves as the springboard for profound growth and change – just as the ordinary caterpillar transitions into a glorious butterfly. Learn nine psychological benefits we all can derive from facing our struggles directly.
Case of John
John grew up in an alcoholic family. During frequent drunken episodes, angry fights erupted between his parents. Encouraged to be “strong,” John seemingly weathered many life tragedies and losses. At age 55, his employer suddenly laid him off from his job of 25 years. Within months, he became severely depressed relying on junk food and smoking to cope with his despair. Over the next two years, his health and marriage deteriorated as he remained unemployed. After suffering a mild stroke, John finally heeded his doctor’s advice to seek counseling. Over time, he recognized many benefits to suffering.
Suffering tends to put our lives into perspective. Discerning what is truly important in our lives allows us to focus on the things that promote growth and discard what is draining or damaging. One essential value is to view suffering as an opportunity for growth instead of a process to be avoided.
Fewer Grandiose Expectations
Suffering allows us to lower unrealistic expectations. For example, I can only be happy if I have many friends, constant entertainment, and the material things I desire. After challenging our unrealistic expectations, we can focus our energy to achieve more attainable goals (e.g., a few good friends, occasional fun outings, the things we need), and feel more gratitude for what we have.
Long periods of suffering can help us to become more patient. When things come too quickly, it is common to expect instant gratification, which is unrealistic in the long run. Building our suffering muscles helps us to focus on more meaningful goals that often take time to achieve.
Keeping secrets, stuffing feelings, and maintaining silence becomes less tolerable when we suffer. Appropriate expression of our thoughts, dreams, and feelings offers release, encourages clarity, and fosters relationships.
Focus on Solutions
Pain serves as a very effective motivator to solve nagging problems in life.
Toxic relationships drain too much energy, especially during a period of suffering. This can help us to invest our precious time in seeking and nurturing relationships that promote growth.
Finding Life Purpose
Many of us struggling through an existential crisis (a particularly difficult form of suffering) ultimately find a sense of meaning and life purpose.
Doing the Right Thing
When someone causes us suffering, it is natural to reflect on the suffering we have caused others. Very often, we will later rethink our hurtful behaviors and act more righteously.
Misery loves company. We often find it much easier to spend time with someone in grief or struggling with illness when we have similar struggles ourselves. We can also develop a much deeper sense of empathy for others’ pain.
Tolerating Necessary Change
Although challenging and difficult, change can catapult us into living life more fully. Imagine the butterfly who can now fly and see the world from a whole new perspective.
Swiss Psychiatrist and close follower of Sigmund Freud offered a profound insight, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Although many factors contribute to common neuroses, avoidance of legitimate suffering aggravates the conditions.
So, what is legitimate suffering? Here are some ideas.
- grieving our losses,
- facing our problems head-on,
- doing what is right even when it causes pain,
- acknowledging what is and is not in our control,
- trusting a higher power,
- accepting our life situations and our unique life path,
- feeling our emotions genuinely,
- caring about others,
- making the necessary sacrifices to live according to our values,
- taking calculated risks to live fully,
- working hard to realize our dreams,
- letting go of the minor sufferings that are not important.
Back to John
After a year in counseling, John explored the many losses in his life, including intangible losses (normal childhood, identity, and sense of calm). Through his suffering, he learned the value of feeling and expressing his emotions fully. After questioning many of his faulty beliefs about being strong or seeking success, he focused on cultivating fewer relationships with more depth. Finally, he changed his career to a desired profession which his father demeaned because “you don’t make any money at that.” Afterward, he simplified his life and now reports that he is much more content and much less stressed.
The case of John is shared with permission.
Image is under license from Shutterstock.com
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