Learning to Suffer: How Avoiding Your Suffering Can Make It Worse

Person with long black hair lies in bed, hands and hair over faceI do not like to suffer, and I do not like for others to suffer. I avoid unnecessary suffering as much as possible, and as a therapist I try to help people to see and stop the unintentional, accidental things they do that add unnecessary suffering to their life. To me, that is one of the most realistic benefits of therapy, and I am always happy when I can help with that.

If I’m honest, though, when I first approached training to be a therapist I was possessed by the fantasy that therapy could create a suffering-free and, if I stay honest, perfected life. I remember reading a quote by Sigmund Freud in which he said the goal of analysis was to help the person overcome “neurotic misery” so they can deal with “normal human unhappiness,” and I wondered, “Why is Freud so pessimistic?” I had the fantasy that therapy could make us somehow super-human, able to transcend “normal human unhappiness”—the aches, pains, and anxieties that come with living. Over time, I have come to see that (1) I was somewhat deluded, and (2) I am not the only one who suffers under that fantasy.

In fact, many of us long to transcend our humanity, to somehow outsmart or shortcut the painful stuff that is built into life—the loss of loved ones through their death or ours, the breakdown of our bodies, the inevitability of failure, pain, loss, and frustration, the impossibility of endless perfection or bliss, etc. Those things sound terrible, so no wonder we long to somehow avoid them. However, when we start asking ourselves, others (e.g., our therapists), and life to somehow grant us the power to not suffer the realities of human life that we all face, we are in pursuit of an impossible and potentially self-destructive goal.

When we refuse to suffer, we refuse life on life’s terms, imperiling our relationship with the realities around us. What are the consequences of trying to actualize the fantasy that we are somehow bigger than suffering, or that we can somehow not suffer in a perfect life? Is some suffering possible to overcome or do we have to accept all the suffering in our lives? What suffering is necessary and unavoidable, and what kind of suffering is not? What happens to our therapy when we give ourselves and our therapists the magic task of making life into something it’s not—perfect and comfortable? We can explore some of these questions here.

Ways We Refuse to Suffer

If some suffering is simply built into life, what are the ways we try to avoid suffering? There are many, but most are based in the psychological defense mechanism known as denial.

Remember the now-famous meme of the cartoon dog, sipping coffee as the room is burning around him, saying, “This is fine!”? The dog’s reaction is profoundly human, and perhaps that’s why it’s so funny to us. We, too, have the ability to un-see the painful or anxiety-provoking things we see, to un-feel those bad feelings, and to undo our reality through denial. Under the influence of denial, our house may still burn down, but we will not experience (read: suffer) the emotional impact of it.

Denial can take many forms in our efforts to refuse suffering: We can deny our love of someone so we won’t suffer the pain of their loss. We can deny our feelings are important so we will not suffer pain when we are cruel to ourselves or treated cruelly by others. We can deny the humanity of others so we will not suffer guilt when we harm them. We can even deny that life is real in an effort to not suffer the aches and pains that come with living.

As a species, we are highly capable of denial, and we often do it unintentionally and automatically. But what price do we pay for this way of (not) dealing with reality?

Costs of Refusing to Suffer

What happens when we deny our feelings and our reality and refuse to suffer? We certainly experience a temporary no-feeling state that can be blissful, or even a kind of excited feeling of perfection, and that can be comforting or even addictive. We can go on in denial for a long time.

But like the dog in the meme, the house keeps burning around us no matter how long we deny it. Denial of loss and refusal to suffer the grief of loss does not make the loss any less true or real. Denial of our pain and refusal to suffer it will not take the damage caused by a cruel tormenter away; it will make us perfect victims. Denial that our lives are real and important, and refusal to bear the feelings that come with reality, leaves us in an aimless state, unable to connect to our desires and pursue things we might want.

Good therapy can help us learn to suffer and learn from the unavoidable pains of life, and help us see and stop our tendencies to add extra, unnecessary suffering to life. However, the process of learning about ourselves, our feelings, and our lives can be painful in and of itself, as can the process of change.

Fundamentally, refusal to suffer makes it impossible for us to learn from our experiences: If I never experience the pain of my hand being burned by the stove, how can I learn not to do it again? If I never feel the stinging pain of someone hurting me, how can I realize the importance of setting a protective boundary with them? If I deny the pain I cause myself through self-attacking thoughts or self-harm, how can I develop the compassion and concern for myself that I will need in order to stop?

If we refuse to suffer the feelings that come with life, we may not fully learn about ourselves, the people around us, and our environment. Without opening up to the experience of all our feelings, we will never learn the “rules” of reality, the limitations of being human, the costs and benefits of our behaviors, and as a result we will fail to adapt. We will be in a chronic state of “surprise” when we keep doing things the same way, not experiencing and learning from the consequences of our actions, and then keep getting the same result.

If we refuse to suffer, we will fail to learn from the experiences that create our suffering. We can further wonder: if we refuse to bear the pains that come with life, can we truly be available to experience the joys? What happens to our lives if we don’t learn from our joyous experiences either?

Is Suffering Inevitable?

Some suffering in life cannot be avoided. The emotional suffering attached to everything—from accidentally stubbing one’s toe to saying goodbye to our loved ones and to life at the moment of our deaths—is a built-in part of the human program. We can avoid our feelings about these experiences through denial, but they happen to us no matter what.

But not all suffering is so inevitable. In life, we can create additional suffering beyond what is simply required. Paradoxically, one of the major ways we add unnecessary suffering to our lives is through the ways we try to avoid the necessary suffering. Here’s how:

  • If I use drugs or alcohol to numb myself to the pain of a loss, rather than bearing the grief of that loss, then I have created additional suffering and damage in an effort to avoid the unavoidable suffering and damage that life created.
  • If I tell myself “I’m fine” after my partner has hurt me, my denial of the suffering my relationship has caused me allows me to perpetuate additional suffering by staying in hurtful relationships.
  • If I refuse to suffer the anxiety I feel when I am not taking good care of myself, I may not feel a need to change and will likely create more suffering as I continue to hurt myself.

We never intend to add long-term suffering to our lives when we choose short-term ways to refuse suffering, but this is often the result. The unintended consequences of our refusal to suffer what life is presenting us often lead us to seek therapy. In therapy, our task becomes to stop avoiding and denying these very real pains and anxieties, face our feelings, and learn to bear the suffering that is a natural, unavoidable part of our lives, so we can put an end to the suffering that we add to life through avoidance and learn to live with the suffering we cannot control.

Refusing to Suffer in Therapy

Good therapy can help us learn to suffer and learn from the unavoidable pains of life, and it can also help us see and stop our tendencies to add extra, unnecessary suffering to life. However, the process of learning about ourselves, our feelings, and our lives can be painful in and of itself, as can the process of change. In order to change, we may be required to suffer feelings we would rather avoid. What happens when our impulse to avoid or refuse suffering shows up in our therapy?

Our desire to refuse or avoid the built-in sufferings of life can show up in therapy in a variety of ways. We can ask our therapist to “teach” us some “skill” or give advice with the hope they know some magical routine or mantra that will help us avoid the unavoidable or numb us to what we all must feel. We can prefer the fantasy that we can learn from the therapist’s experience rather than experience or suffer life for ourselves. We can ask the therapist to answer questions there are no answers to yet, hoping we won’t have to bear the pain of not knowing or do the hard work of finding out for ourselves. We can take on a passive role, hoping the therapist will change us, with the secret hope we will not have to suffer the pain, time, and effort required to change ourselves. We can fire the therapist with the secret hope that, in doing so, we will fire the uncomfortable realities we are facing in therapy. The list could go on and on.

It is always possible we are simply not ready to face, accept, and live (read: suffer) the truth of our lives, and if so that is okay. I think many people quit therapy when they realize that, for the therapy to work, they will have to face some suffering—whether it’s the hard work of change, the pain of saying goodbye to the past, or the confusion and frustration that are sometimes inherent in change. Not everyone wants to face these things; they are far from blissful and perfect. However, when we are ready, a good therapist will help us to suffer the feelings that life is asking us to suffer and help us stop adding suffering to our lives through our refusal and avoidance. Then, we can learn from our experiences and use our new knowledge to bear the sufferings and joys that life hands us, rather than increase our suffering by refusing what life hands us.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Tyler

    September 27th, 2017 at 8:27 AM

    Well it happens to be another one of those things where we sometimes try to bury our heads in the sand and avoid instead of facing something head on. I mean, the faster we can understand what it is that we are up against and deal with it, probably the faster we can get the pain to be resolved and go away. Unfortunately most of us try to avoid it at all costs and make things worse in the end.

  • Meg

    September 28th, 2017 at 2:45 PM

    My mom has always been the queen of saying that she is fine when obviously there is something wrong in her life and something bothering her. I don’t know how she manages to always push aside her own feelings to look only at those everyone else is going through but she does.
    I admit that I am afraid that one day this is all going to come crashing down on her, that there is only so much that one person can take and she will break from the weight of it all. But how do I get someone who has carried that heavy load for so long to see that what she thinks of as doing good is actually doing things that could hurt her in the end?

  • keith

    September 29th, 2017 at 7:41 AM

    you are denying a crucial aspect of yourself when you don’t allow yourself to feel both the good and the bad in life

  • Kelvin

    October 1st, 2017 at 12:21 AM

    One positive way to look at suffering is the extraordinary feeling of accomplishment when it comes to an end. In my experience it does, and I learn from it. Time will bring good things, wait a bit and then here comes the sadness, wait and it all changes again. If I have learned one thing in my life that is to accept change, no amount of good advice can prepare me for this, the tools have already been installed from the day the first time I took a breath. Life never gives up on me. Suffering is unbearable when I forget that.

  • Wendy

    November 15th, 2021 at 1:40 AM

    I have read the above which all makes perfect sense. I say this because I have had many years of therapy, with an excellent therapist who has not helped me enormously but my family have benefited too. However I have a daughter who is and has been for a long time in denial. She lost her husband 24 years who dropped dead when her son was only 11 weeks old and then her sister died suddenly 18 years ago
    She has more or less buried her grief for both. I can tell from the way she acts with me and her son that she is in denial. Do you have a book based on the article above which I might consider passing on to her.
    Or can you recommend some easy reading who she and her husband could relate to. Unfortunately her husband is in even greater denial about his past and even denies he has problems – our interactions with him have proved very difficult meaning for our daughters sake we just have had to work round him and accept we can’t change him. Hope this all makes sense

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