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Relational Reflections: Yes, another blog, and this one’s from Dr. Nadine and Dr. Zan at True Heights

Don't Waste Your Pain

Dr. Nadine’s Thoughts:

As a follow-up from last week’s blog, I’ve been intentionally absorbing all sorts of inspirational materials to infuse more joy into my world.  As part of this, I was digging into the Psalms of the Old Testament of the Bible as we are anticipating the celebrations of Passover and Easter this weekend.  I started at the beginning of the book and have been working my way through. When I got to Psalm 10, I was struck by how “not-joyful” it felt; for me, it’s not one of the more uplifting poems written by David.  It seems more like a reading for the times we feel short on joy and happiness, and when we’re frustrated and discouraged by the things we see around us. But, there was one verse that jumped out at me.

Psalm 10:17 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
You listen to the longings of those who suffer. You offer them hope, and you pay attention to their cries for help.

Suffering.  We can’t get away from it.  But we try.

Suffering is part of our human experience.  It comes in all shapes and forms and manifests in all the areas of our human makeup: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.  It differs in level and intensity for each of us. It’s well known that people have different abilities to tolerate pain. So what might be very troublesome for me might be a mere annoyance for you.

I have a high tolerance for both physical and psychic pain.  That’s not necessarily a good thing. Pain is meant to communicate that something needs attention.  But often we ignore it, or struggle against it. Neither is a healthy way to manage our pain.

As a psychologist, I often treat people who are trying to avoid their struggles and make them go away.  They have lots and lots of very specific ways of doing this: denying that the problem exists, rationalizing why the problems exists, trying to undo the problem, overcompensating for the problem…  But in all cases there’s a lack of acceptance of the problem. It’s precisely this that prolongs our suffering. The more we struggle against it, and the more we hold on to the notion that we shouldn’t struggle, the longer we’ll suffer.  As the noted psychiatrist Carl Jung observed, the very things we do to avoid our pain become more distressing than the original pain we tried to avoid!

So what to do?  First, don’t pretend you’re not hurting.  Secondly, don’t exaggerate it. Then, share your suffering.  If you believe in a Higher Power - or even if you don’t - you can talk to God and listen for his comfort.  This Psalm reminds us God hears (even when we don’t think so) and will offer us hope. It also states that we should actively cry out.  Next, we can share it with others who suffer, as it is part of our common humanity.  We can also share it with our doctors, who will help us treat our pain. We can share it with our spiritual directors, who will help us understand and grow through our pain.  And we can share it with those who love and care for us, and who can support us through our distress.

Our acknowledgement and acceptance of suffering must precede our attempts to ameliorate our situations.  Admitting our distress doesn’t extend it; rather paradoxically, it is the necessary first step in managing and eliminating it.  I promise! Finally, coming full circle, alleviating our pain invites joy back into our lives. And who doesn’t want to make more room for joy?!

Dr. Zan’s Reflections:

Allow me to begin by taking a moment to express my gratitude to Dr. Nadine for bringing up the topic of suffering and its relationship to joy. Indeed, I have just finished teaching an 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion course that addresses the universal experience of human suffering and the desire to alleviate this suffering with compassionate attitudes and actions. In order to manage suffering we certainly need to be willing and able to turn toward it, to bear witness to it, and to have a desire to help. Turning toward difficulty without becoming immersed and overwhelmed is the key to skillful management of ourselves and our relationships.

If I am fully honest, “suffering” is not a term that I have used much over the course of a lifetime. Whether or not this was the intent, one of the lessons that I learned in my childhood was to either look away from suffering or to pretend that difficulties in my purview did not rise to the level of distress that would be worthy of this label. Therefore, I never felt entitled to even utter the word “suffering,” much less presume it to be part of my life. I interpreted my own difficulties as being the outgrowth of personal failings or weakness and therefore a source of shame never to be admitted, personally or publicly.

Reflecting further on my childhood, I recognize that my mother also learned to mask suffering and to feel unworthy of identifying it. From my earliest memories she struggled with both physical pain and emotional challenges that she believed fervently should not be shared or the subject of complaint. When she did speak of her pain, dare I now from this vantage point say her suffering, it was with an air of distaste that she had revealed such information. I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that she was quite critical of herself for her struggles and continually disappointed that she could not overcome them with more elegance and grace. My sad confession is this: I too was not very patient or compassionate with my mother and her ongoing suffering. As a child and adolescent I often wondered why she did not more consistently observe the value we all held dear in our family, and that was to “suffer in silence.”

To this day, I wish I had been a more consistently compassionate and patient daughter. Had I learned sooner to be more compassionate with myself, I could have extended that compassion to my suffering mother as well. And yet, I do forgive myself because I, as many other human beings, lived in a flawed relationship with my mother. I loved her, and I did my best--the best I had to offer at the time--to negotiate the relationship skillfully. While I know that I would respond to her differently now, that is not the opportunity that life has presented to me.

What life has offered me is the chance to continue to learn more deeply about love and compassion, to offer it to myself and others, and to work toward facilitating better relationships among those I encounter today. Part of helping others to embrace their own best selves is to admit, fully and freely, that this world is a place where we are surrounded by suffering. Now this may sound depressing, but for me it is not. By acknowledging and naming suffering, we make space for the connection to others that emerges around it, just as Dr. Nadine discussed. We stop wasting our energy on denials and rationalizations, and we start wisely investing our energy in listening, comforting, and healing.

For the last several years I’ve been experimenting with boldly using the term suffering when I encounter it. I’m finally getting past my reflexive shudder when I think or say it. In the Mindful Self-Compassion program, we talk about the need to “feel to heal” and “name to tame.” These prompts certainly hold true in regard to suffering. When we are in the taming and healing process, we can also open ourselves to true joy as it arises.

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