Does Suffering Make You Stronger?

shutterstock_219197944We are surrounded by material things designed to give us the good life, a life of pleasure. We have medications to relieve the suffering of our aches and pains. It is ironic that we still find ways to suffer, to hide from the possibility of happiness.

Our possessions are supposed to make us happy, but they cannot erase or neutralize the menacing effects of our past. They do not scratch where we itch. Our golden toys turn to useless junk in the attic. We are unworthy still.

To some of us, happiness is useless. Happiness is “easy.” It does not prove that we are “tough,” that we can “take it.” Only suffering can serve as proof. Suffering “proves” that we are stronger than people who “can’t take it.” What kind of people have to “prove” that they can take suffering? People who feel inferior and inadequate to cope with the real demands of life. What kind of people make themselves suffer by sabotaging their success? “Guilty” people. This is how inadequate people “solve” the painful problem of feeling “less than” their fellow human beings. They avoid guilt by showing how much suffering they can endure.

The antidote is self-respect. Self-respecting people aren’t guilty of a crime, they are merely imperfect. They are not worthless or inferior, they are equal members of the human race. They do not deserve to suffer, they deserve to take life as it comes. When suffering does come, they work through it as best they can. They do not need to make their suffering worse than it needs to be.

For Alison, the way out of her depression was to build up a “tolerance” for happiness in small doses, day by day, week by week. Each time she did, her fictitious guilt became less and less. She was replacing her lifelong conviction that she deserved to suffer because she “wasn’t good enough,” that she was wrong and not right, inferior and unworthy to enjoy life.

She understood these concepts intellectually. They made sense to her. But “understanding” or “insight” was not the cure for her depression. As a people pleaser, Alison’s big problem was saying, no. It was less “scary” to say, yes. She had no “right” to say, no, anyway. She also had the belief that it was inconsiderate to ask for what she wanted. Not only was it displeasing, she didn’t “deserve” to get what she wanted, so why even ask in the first place? She would feel “guilty” if she succeeded. All of these negative attitudes overlapped and reinforced each other.

When Alison made it a practice to ask for what she wanted at work and with her friends, the issue was not the successful outcome. Sometimes she got what she wanted, sometimes she didn’t. That was not the measure of success. Her success was in having the courage to overcome her lifelong, paralyzing fear of displeasing people by asking for what she wanted. That was the accomplishment that gave her the confidence and the courage to ask again the next time. The beauty was that she was worthwhile whether she got it or not!

Alison did her Homework. She did what pleased her instead of living on other people’s terms. She signed up for tennis lessons, something she had wanted to do since sixth grade. She told her younger brother to start depending on himself instead of on her “good nature.” She told her boss that she wanted a meeting to clarify her responsibilities because she was tired of guessing what he wanted, and she told her parents that she wasn’t coming to Christmas dinner because she had another engagement. These successes do not seem spectacular to the average observer. They have no way of assessing the deep fear of abandonment that Alison had to overcome. For Alison, these choices were major accomplishments.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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