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  • Tara Ferguson, PhD

Learning to "Suffer Well," Part 2

Welcome back to the multi-part blog series about learning to suffer with skill. Today, we explore step 1 and 2 of using your suffering to move to higher levels of development that will leave you feeling empowered, fulfilled and yearning for more challenges so you can master those as well.

The Steps to Suffering Success: Steps 1 and 2

Step 1: Grieve

As a culture, I don’t think suffering or feeling pain is something we are very good at. We are constantly bombarded through media with pictures of smiling people, arms outreached to the sun, holding happy babies, looking thin and beautiful. We have been brainwashed into thinking that something is wrong if we don’t always feel that way. Advertisements tell us if we buy their product, we could feel that way too and, why not, we deserve it.

Until I was re-educated by psychology, I had no idea that emotions might have a purpose. In fact, I tried to stay as far away from them as possible! Now I know that each emotion comes with a need and an action tendency. A simple physical metaphor for this is that when you are hungry, you need food and so the action tendency is to get up and find something to eat. Just like hunger, all emotions are in the service of our survival. Emotions are individualized to each person and you can never know what is needed until you really tune in and sit with the feeling. Sitting with feelings is hard…. really hard. But there is payoff to be had in using them as a guidance system. They are an intelligent source of information, compiled of millions of tiny pieces of data about your values, preferences, goals, previous life experiences, stories you’ve heard, books you’ve read, your mood, your needs, your physical state, etc and outputted in a simple yet informative emotional valance tailored specifically to you and the situation at hand. Sitting with them, processing them and learning to read them is key to overcoming the challenges in our lives and moving forward on our path.

My thoughts on sadness or grief from a loss in particular, are that, unlike all the other emotions, where typically some type of action is needed, it seems to call for inaction, or simply being able to process or feel the emotion and let it “run its course.” This is much harder than it seems, especially if you are a very action-oriented person like I am. The good news is that, in my observation, there seems to be a limited amount of sadness or grief to be felt for every loss or painful situation. With my clients I use the metaphor of a sand timer. While we are “looking” at our sadness (feeling it) the sand is moving through the hourglass, processing and moving away from our central being. When we “look away” (go and do other things; distract ourselves), it freezes in time until the next time we have an opportunity to process. However, eventually, we just wake up one day and are no longer filled with sadness that needs to be processed. Maybe it comes and goes in waves or when reminded from there. But for the most part, the grieving is done and we are ready to move on.

Step 2: Accept Withdrawal Pains

When we experience a loss, we are essentially experiencing withdrawal from a source of reinforcement that we have become dependent on for reward on a neurochemical level. For instance, research shows that if I conduct a brain activity scan on two individuals, one who is experiencing a loss of a relationship and another who is withdrawing from a substance, I cannot tell which is which just by looking at their brains. For me, it helps to know there is a neurobiological process at play because that means there is a predictable course and endpoint. At some point, if left unfilled, the additional neurotransmitter receptor sites that had formed to accommodate the consistent source of reward you were receiving will “die off” and you will be left with your minimal natural set point of receptors. Still devoid of a way to fill those, they will become more sensitive over time to smaller and smaller sources of activation.

So, in the meantime, and before we can “start over,” we have to feel the withdrawal pains associated with the die-off of reward receptors caused by changes in our lives. If we try to escape from them, we only create additional problems. For instance, if we fill our hungry reward receptors by increasing our substance use, spending, having an affair, eating sugary foods, etc we now have a problem with our health, productivity, finances, marriage, etc. The problems then become the layers of the onion with the original problem still remaining as the core. The most efficient solution is to just get straight to suffering through the withdrawal pains and grieving your “old self/old life.”

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