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Blessed Are Those Who Suffer?

Dr. Gary Trosclair
LCSW, DMA, is a certified Jungian analyst
Posted: July 28, 2010 07:00 AM

Is suffering inevitable, avoidable, meaningful, neurotic, or the only path to growth? I'd say it could be any of the above, depending on its origins and how we respond to it.

Some people find meaning in their suffering. They find some purpose in what they are going through and then they experience the suffering in a much more positive way. This requires a fairly spiritual outlook on life, a sense that there is more at work than the apparent.

Others make meaning out of their suffering. They choose to use it as an opportunity to learn and grow psychologically, spiritually or even physically, without any assumption that there is an underlying purpose in what has happened. For instance, some use it as an opportunity to develop compassion for others.

The potential to find or make meaning in life is archetypal, and usually adaptive. It helps us to cope with aspects of life that would otherwise make us terribly depressed or anxious, and the attitude it carries really does help us to grow.

(One caveat before I continue: There are instances, both social and individual, where it would take extra-ordinary psychological strength to see suffering as having meaning. And there are instances when it probably makes no sense to try to find or make meaning. But that isn't my subject today.)

What concerns me as a psychotherapist is that there are times when suffering may be unwittingly self-imposed and does not lead to psychological or spiritual growth. In most cases these patterns are partially the result of long-forgotten strategies to deal with some very real pain.

But the patterns of self-imposed suffering that I am about to describe can't be explained solely by painful personal history. For self-imposed pain to persist it usually needs to masquerade as meaningful pain. It plugs into the archetypal energy that we usually use to make meaning out of suffering. It enlists that energy in a recurring but failed attempt to cope. The potential to find or make meaning from suffering is a deep, archetypal part of our nature. Without it we would be a miserable and dysfunctional lot. But that inner potential and underlying energy can also be hijacked in a misguided effort to compensate for a sense of inadequacy.

Much of our self-imposed suffering comes from a need to convince ourselves or others that we are good. In a twist of emotional logic, we develop the idea that if we are suffering, we must be good. Jesus said that those who suffer for the sake of righteousness are blessed. If we are insecure about our goodness, we may take this in a way that was never intended. We may begin to think that if we are suffering we must be righteous. Then suffering becomes a good thing, a way out of a sense of inadequacy, and we are primed to see ourselves as suffering, and perhaps even to invest in creating more suffering.

Further, we may feel that if others see the suffering, they will be convinced that we are good, and then perhaps we can feel good about ourselves by seeing ourselves through their eyes. You could call this a martyr complex, but that might dismiss the pattern without understanding the real suffering that's going on underneath.

Another version of this comes from punishing ourselves in an attempt to make ourselves perform better next time. Even though the strategy seldom succeeds, we often keep trying.

Some punish themselves believing that they deserve it, hoping that if they punish themselves first, perhaps they can escape the wrath of God or others.

There are different degrees of this investment in, and identification with, suffering. On the simplest level we focus on suffering to the exclusion of the good things in our lives. Facing suffering is not the same as remaining fixated on it. Consciously choosing to let go of pain after becoming aware of it is not the same as trying to ignore it completely. On other levels we may either passively or actively invite suffering. On any of these levels suffering can become an end in itself.

These are just a few examples. I am curious whether any of you are aware of other patterns of self-imposed suffering, particularly ones that seem to tap into patterns of energy that are otherwise helpful.

Disengaging from self-imposed suffering requires awareness of our patterns, sorting out which suffering deserves our attention, and which suffering is best observed and released. It takes courage to acknowledge such a tendency, but the rewards are worth it. Life provides plenty enough opportunities to learn and grow from suffering. For most of us there is no need to create more.

From The Huffington Post published on July 28, 2010 07:00 AM