“How should I deal with suffering? How can I help those around me who are suffering?”
We hear “time will heal all wounds,” but what about those who carry unprocessed grief, unanswered questions, unresolved trauma, and life-long depression?
Suffering takes many forms, such as personal loss, the end of relationships, disasters, trauma, chronic illness, mental illness, devastating medical conditions, societal injustice, among other circumstances. What these examples have in common is that they cause emotional pain. This article provides you with some advice that is at the heart of many therapy approaches to help you more effectively cope with suffering and provide emotional support to others.
As a therapist who walks alongside people with various kinds of hardships, I have noticed that the way people respond to their own thoughts and emotions may either add another layer to their suffering or it can help them cope more effectively. Similarly, the way that we talk to and treat others who are suffering may either comfort or cause further wounds.
Consider the metaphor of a person who is floating adrift at sea. The daunting waves of emotional pain, such as grief or anxiety, will swell and crash around them with unpredictability. There are seasons where the waves of emotional pain are more intense and frequent, while other seasons have fewer or calmer waves. Sometimes the castaway has time to brace for the impact of an impending hardship, yet other times, the castaway is blindsided by storms of life.
One response to the waves of emotional pain is to cling to anything that will help us avoid getting wet and cold from the waves. Terrified of the waves, we grasp onto driftwood with bare white knuckles, eventually exhausting all of our time and energy to escape the inescapable waves.
Clinging to driftwood represents our unconscious efforts to avoid facing the waves of our emotional pain. To avoid our pain, we may distract ourselves or try to numb our feelings. When done in moderation, distractions, rest, and play can be appropriate and healthy ways to rejuvenate ourselves and live a balanced life. However, excessive use of anything (e.g., entertainment, food, sleep, drugs, work, exercise) may be a sign of emotional avoidance.
Hardships often disrupt the illusion that we can maintain certainty or control over life. We might try to regain a sense of control or certainty by searching for rational, political, or theological explanations to the situation (e.g., “How is this part of God’s plan?” “What was the gunman’s psychological motivation?” “Who should I blame and punish for this?”). Although we all should develop informed worldviews and ask important questions over the course of our life, a frantic searching for ‘answers’ during suffering will not heal our wounds. Searching for an answer may distract us from the uncomfortable but urgent task of processing our emotional pain.
Another reaction to the waves is to become so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the waves, to the point of drowning in despair. Upon feeling the shock of the crashing wave against our body, we collapse in hopeless defeat. It is a paralysis stemming from the assumption that, “The size of this wave and the amount of pain I feel right now will always exist.”
Drowning in the ocean represents what happens when our feelings of despair, fear, self-loathing, or shame overwhelm us to the point that we buy into their conclusions. It is natural for painful experiences to produce negative stories in our minds (e.g., “There’s no hope; I should have done more; The world is unsafe; Now my life is ruined”). However, this “drowning” occurs when we absorb negative conclusions so deeply that they feel like the only possible reality.
There is a third way for the castaway to handle waves of emotional pain. After trying and failing to avoid the waters, our castaway accepts that getting wet is an inevitable part of being in a storm. The castaway does not enjoy the cold and harsh ocean yet has decided to learn to swim. The castaway musters up the courage to face the waves directly, sometimes feeling intimidated by the raw power of the wave, and other times, feeling curious about the nature of the ocean.
Swimming represents how we can respond to our waves of emotion in an open, curious, observant, and compassionate way, also known as “emotional processing” or “active coping skills.” Swimming is a willingness to get wet, that is, to allow ourselves to feel and authentically express what we’re really feeling. Getting wet and cold never becomes enjoyable, just as emotions of fear, guilt, sadness, and anger never feel comfortable to have. However, this way of actively facing our problems and pain enables us to move in a chosen direction rather than be at the mercy of the waves by. These active coping skills do require practice to learn.
As with any journey, taking a break from constant swimming is still necessary. Especially in the beginning, some waves might feel too powerful to swim through, and it can seem like the castaway is drowning as the castaway allows the waves to pass through. However, applying therapeutic skills will help emotional pain becomes more manageable and can free up more energy for engagement in other areas of life.
The therapeutic skill of “swimming” through our thoughts and emotions can be broken down into 3 practical components: 1) Attention 2) Openness 3) Compassion. These are the same ingredients you may use when providing emotional support to others who are suffering.
The first component of emotional support is a willingness to give your attention to the person who is suffering. Quality attention may include spending time doing whatever they are in the mood for. It could be a thoughtful gesture, such bringing a warm meal to their house. For people with whom you are close, you can show a willingness to hear their story (when they are ready). Your goal is to show them that you truly see them—that their pain and emotions matter to you too. In other words, by giving them your attention, you send the message, “Your life and your feelings are so important that I will dedicate my own time and attention to be present with you.”
Will we do the same for ourselves? You can do so by making a conscious effort to pay attention to your internal experiences. You can practice by simply noticing the stories, thoughts, and emotions that your brain generates during suffering. You might seek insight into what past experiences make your brain prone to telling stories that have a reoccurring themes, such as helplessness or shame. As you notice your thoughts, emotions, and stories, you can practice noticing them without becoming completely absorbed or overwhelmed by them. In other words, taking a more curious and observant stance. You might do this by reminding yourself, “These are thoughts and feelings that will come and go. I can practice listening to and acknowledging them, and I can also take breaks from them to focus on something else.”
Another way to help others who are in pain is to have an open, curious, and respectful response to their potentially messy, complicated, heretical, irrational, and/or confusing expressions of pain. You might ask, “What’s wrong?” or, “How are you feeling today?” Openness is not a dismissive comment (e.g., “It’s been 3 months already- why are you still so upset?”), nor does it try to fix others (e.g., “That’s a bad way to think about this situation, you need to change your mindset right now”). Openness does not assume the future or interpret situations for others (e.g., “I just know that this will be a transformative experience for you; I’m sure you will feel better in a few weeks”). Instead, openness shows respect toward wherever the other person is in their process (e.g., “How are you navigating things right now?”).
Even for people who believe that suffering can serve a spiritual purpose, we must be careful not to use faith convictions to unintentionally drown out expressions of pain. People often experience more healing and comfort from an empathic listener, rather than from someone who rushes to share “spiritual truths” or “positive reminders.” Expressions of grief, sadness, depression, and anxiety do not mean that someone has forsaken their spiritual beliefs because someone can hold onto faith and hope while also grieving pain of the present moment. To show effective emotional support, we must learn how to tolerate sitting with someone else’s pain without immediately fixing it. A loving presence heals more wounds than a thousand words of advice.
In a similar fashion, you can demonstrate openness toward your own internal experiences. You can do this by allowing yourself to express emotions in an unfiltered manner (e.g. journaling, prayer, aloud, telling a friend, crying as long as needed). Rather than repressing or ignoring your uncomfortable emotions, you can practice allowing them to run their course, by letting them come and go like the ebb and flow of ocean waves.
You can offer compassion for those who suffer by expressing empathy and validation. This can be expressed through a concerned look, a gentle hug (when appropriate), or phrases such as, “It makes sense why you feel that way; I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.” Sometimes we unknowingly replace compassion with pity, which conveys that we are looking down on others as though they are helpless. Body language or comments of pity can send a disempowering message (e.g., “I know this must be too much for you to handle”). Sometimes we unconsciously assume that someone’s hardship is the only important or interesting aspect of that person’s life (e.g., when we start every conversation with questions about it). Instead, allow those in pain to talk about other aspects of their life and allow them to bring up their hardships whenever they decide.
In a parallel way, you can practice self-compassion by acknowledging that your own emotional pain is valid. Some people find it helpful to express self-compassion through kind phrases to themselves (e.g., “It’s okay to feel this way; I have been through so much; my pain matters”). These phrases can be said with a comforting hand on one’s own heart. Another expression of self-compassion is to do something kind for yourself, such as enjoying a special treat, doing an enjoyable activity, or taking intentional time of relaxation.
It is an act of compassion to simply let yourself to say aloud, especially to another person, that “This situation really makes me feel hurt/sad/alone/angry/afraid.”
In summary, we instinctively pick-up ways to handle pain from our upbringing, sermons, and social media—many of them unhelpful. Take a moment to reflect on how you respond to yourself, or others, when suffering happens.
Are you’re ready to take a swim?
Seek a professional counselor to learn how to practice being present and self-compassionate with your emotions.
A book for dealing with grief and a mental illness
The Voices We Carry by J.S. Park
Practical psychology tips to build resilience and healthy coping for adversity and trauma:
Written by Dr. Luke Durain of Center for Stress Management & Psychological Services. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Durain, please call 678-759-1021.