Pain versus suffering

Aug 28, 2020

In my last blog, I suggested that the best way through the darkness of profound loss is, in fact,  straight through, meaning that to acknowledge negative emotions and be present with them is to fully process them.

Next, I want to make an important clarification. While the words pain and suffering are often used interchangeably, there is a crucial distinction.

Pain is the uncomfortable emotion that comes with the territory of being alive. It’s the price we pay when we lose our spouse, among other difficult life events.

Suffering, on the other hand, is the uncomfortable emotion that we manufacture in our minds and pile on top of the pain. Suffering is unnecessary and extremely common.

Every feeling we humans experience comes from our thoughts. Any time you feel any uncomfortable emotion, ask yourself what thoughts you are currently thinking. Write them down, and ask yourself, “is this true?” and “is this useful?”

It is shocking how often our brains offer us thoughts that are neither true nor useful. Even if a thought is true, if it isn’t useful, then it isn’t serving you.

Thoughts create feelings, and feelings prompt actions (or inactions), which create our results. So, our thoughts ultimately show up as results, for better or worse.

The two questions, “is this thought true?” and “is this thought useful?” will help you distinguish between pain and suffering. If you answer no to either of those questions, the thought is very likely creating suffering.

Here is a nuance: thoughts that produce pain that comes with the territory of loss are actually useful thoughts. Because the only way through is through. Processing painful feelings is the most efficient way through. For example, thoughts like “I miss his hugs,” and “I miss us,” will likely create feelings of sadness. This is an emotion that we can be present with in order to process.

Alternatively, thoughts like, “I should be further along by now,” “I should have been able to save him,” and “I’m not grieving correctly,” and other forms of self judgement all create suffering. These thoughts are often neither true nor useful. They create feelings that cannot be processed, but instead keep us stuck, spinning in the darkness, looping in suffering.

Every human’s superpower is the ability to choose thoughts. Thoughts are 100% optional. If your thoughts are not BOTH true AND useful, ask yourself, “what else might be true?” It is entirely possible to direct our brains to choose other thoughts that ultimately create the results we seek. This is how we can deal with suffering.

To summarize, pain that comes with the territory of great loss is pain that we can try to process. Suffering comes from untrue/not useful thoughts that our brains are offering us. We can learn to become fierce editors of those thoughts – deleting them and choosing alternate thoughts that are 100% true and useful.

The distinction between pain and suffering is an important waypoint in navigating life after loss.

Teresa Amaral Beshwate, MPH, The Sudden Widow Coach, helps widows who have experienced the sudden loss of their spouse or significant other learn to live and love their life again. Her coaching program is exclusively for widowed people and offers the perfect mix of private and group coaching along with the most life changing tools for the uniquely challenging widowed journey. 

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