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  • Tara Ferguson, PhD

Learning to “Suffer Well,” Part 1

What does it mean to “suffer well?” And what kind of a sick therapist advocates for it? If you can, hold your judgments and just hear me out! It’s something I have been thinking a lot about over the past year.

To “suffer well” means to suffer skillfully. When you bring skill to a challenge, you have awareness of the larger processes at play and you have a goal in mind. With these things, the challenge can be navigated with purpose. There is knowledge of an endpoint, and it can end with a sense of accomplishment, rather than reflecting on it as a horrible time you just “got through.” …..It is something that the last couple of years, and especially 2020, have taught me well. I’m sure you can relate.

The pandemic trapped us in our homes and greatly limited our lives. One of the biggest challenges for my clients was their inability to use trusted sources of self-care. Their lifelines in an already stressful existence were now gone. Suddenly they were dealing with pre-therapy levels of depression and anxiety. Stuck in the house with family members, dormant problems and issues could not be ignored. Relationships came to an end. People lost their jobs and had no options for a new one. Then, at the height of our discomfort, what seemed like a nightmare came blasting through our televisions, showing us the murder of George Floyd and the following protests. ….We have all felt very, very helpless throughout this trying time.

For me, all of this happened on top of some already-occurring professional and personal crises. With nowhere to turn for relief, I turned inward, hoping for some insight to return me to peacefulness. In that place, I grieved my old life, relationships, sources of meaning and purpose, freedom and opportunities, from losses both personal, professional and covid-related. It was a lot at once. However, I discovered that grieving, instead of fighting or suppressing, allowed me to move into acceptance. Acceptance of PAIN. That was the hardest part. I am a very action-oriented person and when I see a problem, I get to fixing it right away. Not an option in this situation. Stuck with no distractions, the losses had to be faced.

And so for days, months, more than half a year, I walked around with sadness and fear in my body. It was such a heavy weight in my stomach and chest. I decided I had to tolerate it, become it and embrace it because I didn’t see any other way. I kept remembering something I tell my clients – “sometimes the only way out is through…” There were times I thought the pain would never go away. Was this the new me? A sad, depressed, cynical person who lost their sense of meaning and direction and complains all the time? When I surrendered to it, I did not know where it would take me. But here is the beautiful thing that I discovered - In my acceptance of suffering, I was able to let go of clinging to the past. I was no longer trying to “get back to where I used to be.” And that meant I was just accepting what was happening RIGHT NOW without trying to change it. And that allowed me to return to peace.

Over time, I found myself being more engaged in the present. At first, that was painful, but, as my “grief bucket” began to empty, there were moments of interest, wonder, insight and contentment. Because I was more engaged in the present moment, eventually, and to my surprise, small joys and new opportunities that I would have never noticed before – when going through the motions of my familiar routines, trying to get back to them or find some kind of substitute – found their way into my awareness.

Fast forward to now, I love my new life, even though I am still suffering in one way or another most every day. How could I have known that something so miserable, if I just surrendered to it and stopped fighting, could result in something bigger and better than what I had before?

This will be a multi-part blog post, focusing on what I believe the steps are to turning suffering into triumph and peace. Tune back in next month for more details in part 2.

*The author would like to acknowledge that in some cases seeking medication and/or mental help treatment is more appropriate than skillful suffering, such as for mental health issues that are organic/biological in nature, those that cause one to be a danger to self or others or those that cause impairment to the point that there are difficulties completing one’s roles and responsibilities. Never hesitate to seek help for symptoms and feelings that you don’t understand or that feel overwhelming in nature.

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