Let Your Misery Work for You: How Suffering Increases Motivation

Young person with natural hair wearing green blouse leans back in chair, thoughtfully looking up You’re feeling lousy? Good.

While it’s awful to be struggling, it’s also necessary. The pain is the signal you’ve been waiting for—that you’re motivated to change. No one ever woke up from a refreshing nap, looked at their lovely house and loving family, and said, “I really need to change my life in a difficult and lasting way.” It’s only when we’re suffering that we tend to dig in and do the hard work of choosing a new way to exist.

Whether the adjustment you want is small (to exercise a bit more) or large (leaving your relationship), whether it’s long-term (learning to love yourself) or temporary (finding the courage to ask for a raise), creating change means first figuring out why you haven’t done it in the past. Secondly, it means modifying your thoughts and your actions every day, maybe even every minute. This is difficult stuff. It takes determination and commitment.

Which is why most people don’t do it. Real change is rare. People often start projects and then abandon them, because starting is exciting but continuing takes constant attention. This is where pain unexpectedly becomes a positive force. When you’re miserable, the discomfort pushes you to keep going with your new life plan, and see it through, because the stress of changing feels better than the despair of never changing.

Distracting from Pain Increases the Pain

Without pain as an incentive, many of us push away the bad feelings we get from whatever behavior is causing us grief. Your partner is distant and critical? Drink more to forget about it. Your job is unfulfilling? Veg out each night with potato chips and Netflix. It’s easier to numb ourselves to the pain, so we try that, maybe for years on end.

By distracting all the pain away, however, we can’t ever be in the moment (we’re too busy chilling out with Reddit or diverted by Twitter) and so we end up missing life. The idea of feeling an uncomfortable feeling is so scary that we run away from it, worried the emotion will overwhelm or devastate us.

If you’re so cut off from what you feel that you can’t name it, you can convince yourself it’s either not important enough (“I couldn’t possibly still be upset about what happened when I was 12”) or that it isn’t fixable (“If I don’t even know for sure what it is, why bother thinking about it?”) or that it will overwhelm you (“If I open the floodgates, I won’t ever be able to stop being angry”).

But what if the pain isn’t devastating? What if it has something to tell us?

Step 1: Mindfulness

What you don’t realize in that moment is that knowledge is change—or, at the very least, the first step toward healing. Feeling the pain is also called being mindful or being in the moment.

The practice of mindfulness helps to identify and tolerate uncomfortable emotions. The work is to notice you’re having an emotion, acknowledge it is there, and not try to push it away but merely sit with it. It’s tougher than it sounds. I recommend taking a class, contacting a professional, or using online resources such as those at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

That little kid is still inside, yearning for comfort and approval and unconditional love. At this moment, you are the only person who can provide that.

Step 2: Acceptance of the Pain

Another step in mindfulness is to accept that you feel the pain. Acceptance is often confused with resignation. Resigning yourself to bad feelings means being stuck with them and in them, with no options or hope. Acceptance, instead, means letting go of the illusion of control.

Acceptance says, “I’m okay right here. Even when it hurts, I won’t be destroyed. And by giving my pain a chance to breathe, I will understand it better, give it words, and uncover parts of it that have been so deeply buried I didn’t even know they were there.”

Step 3: Integration

The process will be difficult. But it’s not until you know yourself fully and accept all the pieces of yourself—good and bad—that you can be fully formed. It’s a process therapists call integration, to join together all the different parts of yourself and stop rejecting the pieces you think aren’t good enough. The parts that hurt or you’re ashamed of.

Often, what we’re running away from when we distract is something we dislike about ourselves, a perceived fault, or an anxiety. By confronting the idea that even our laziness, our extra weight, our selfishness are all normal, tolerable elements of ourselves, we can finally find a way to like ourselves.

Step 4: Learning to Comfort Yourself

Learning to like ourselves can be achieved by practicing and envisioning being loving toward ourselves. In the past, someone, parents or peers, likely shamed you about actions you took or feelings you expressed. You were taught by people or society that to feel sad, or to express anger, or to fail at anything is bad. So anytime you didn’t measure up, you covered up. That little kid is still inside, yearning for comfort and approval and unconditional love. At this moment, you are the only person who can provide that.

The process is, again, to sit with the parts of yourself that are hurting. But now, as opposed to when you were just being mindful and accepting, you embrace those parts and comfort that younger self. It’s often called “inner child” work, and is best accomplished with the help of a therapist or a guide such as this one.

Really knowing your own story, all of it, allows you to start rewriting it. “I was hurt in the past, I ran away from the hurt by drinking too much, and now instead of running I can comfort myself and choose better ways to deal.” What better mantra for the year ahead?

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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.

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  • Dr. Temple

    Dr. Temple

    December 13th, 2017 at 9:42 AM

    For me the main work of therapy is helping patients identify and understand their personal stories. So many of us move through life unconscious of our own narrative and avoiding pain. If you are ready to face your trauma and claim your own story I suggest meeting with a trained mental health professional.

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