The Difference Between Pain & Suffering

One of the most impactful things I’ve learned since my divorce is the Buddhist distinction between pain and suffering. Basically, they believe pain is inevitable and suffering is optional.

At first, I was like WTF?  (I was, after all, recently divorced. My pain was front and center, and suffering didn’t feel optional.)

But, as time went on, I learned more, and I understood more. Now I completely get it, and it’s my life’s work to pay attention to how I’m adding suffering to a painful situation.

Is Pain Bad?

No, it’s natural. We’re all going to have pain in our lives from death, loss, heartache, illness, you name it. Susan David, PhD has one of the best quotes around this in her TED talk. She said “discomfort is the price of admission for a meaningful life.” She adds that wishing away feelings are “dead people’s goals,” because “only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure.” We’re all going to experience pain, and we should. In fact, trying to avoid experiencing this natural pain isn’t good for your health.

What is Suffering?

Suffering comes from your ability to use language to relate and compare with someone (or something) else. For instance, when I was in the midst of my divorce, I was NOT thinking “wow, so many people have it way worse…I’m so grateful for my situation.” I was deep in “My life sucks so much more than all my friends, no one can possibly understand what this is like, because they are in happy marriages.” That’s creating misery on top of an already painful situation.

Suffering makes you feel worse, often out of proportion to what has happened. It’s the result of all the thoughts put on top of that, all the stories you tell yourself:

  • Why is this happening to me?
  • Everyone else seems to be happy/rich/content/successful/happily married.
  • I’ll never be [fill in your goal of choice].

Suffering is the judgement put on the situation and, often, on yourself. It may not feel like a choice to engage in it, but it is. When you become aware enough to notice it’s happening, you can develop the ability to choose how you respond. Instead of the judgment, you can respond with statements like

  • Yes, this is tough, but I’m tougher
  • This situation sucks, but it will pass
  • I’m allowed to feel how I feel. It will pass.

But I Should Feel …

A sure-fire way to guarantee suffering is to “should” on yourself. I say it often, because it’s so pervasive in society and in people experiencing anxiety. I encourage you to watch your should’s: I should feel this, I shouldn’t do that, etc. It sets up an artificial expectation that you’ve already failed to meet.

When you accept and allow what’s there to be there, acknowledge it, and move toward something that’s important to you, you experience life’s natural ups and downs without getting stuck. This takes A LOT of repetition and consistency to get those neural pathways wired and strong. I would say it took me a good 5 years to truly feel different after my divorce, and that was after a lot of mindful attention to my thinking and doing.

When you get stuck, however, there are solutions to getting out. That’s when connecting with a professional can be helpful