If you’re looking for attention, try wearing a T-shirt with this question embossed across the chest in bold type—Who Will I be Without my Suffering? These words have a thunderous effect on an unconscious level. That’s because we often experience ourself and identify with ourself most profoundly through our suffering.
We all need to make sense of our world and find our place in it. We look for orientation through our beliefs, ego, athletic ability, intelligence, skills, character, body image, personality, sum of knowledge, and possessions. Underneath these external values, though, we can also experience and know ourselves in hidden recesses of our psyche as victims of injustice and malice, as failures or phonies, or as individuals who are insignificant and unworthy.
We have, in particular, four favorite ways to suffer. We can engorge ourselves at the trough of human misery through feelings of deprivation, helplessness, rejection, and criticism. Chances are good that when we’re miserable, we’re entangled in one or more of these negative emotions. Symptoms such as anger, anxiety, fear, procrastination, and depression often have their roots in these four opportunities to suffer.
With a little insight, we can check in with ourselves to determine pretty accurately whether we’ve tumbled into one of these four pits of pain. We can get ourselves out with self-awareness and insight. Most of the time, people in the pits find it hard to escape because they resist seeing their own role in their predicament.
If you’re living a life of relative abundance, yet still feel anxious that something is missing in your life, you’re likely entangled in the first of the four, the negative emotion of deprivation. This means that you are unconsciously determined to see and experience the glass as half-empty. This propensity to see and experience our life through negative impressions is a quirk of human nature. It’s as if we have an emotional addiction to various forms of negativity. We often are unaware of how easily we can slip over to the negative side and stay there, even as we complain about how unpleasant it all is.
Envy is a symptom of the unconscious determination to feel that something is missing in our life. Greed is also a symptom of that feeling. Envy, greed, and selfishness result from our unconscious entanglement in deprivation.
Our second favorite way to suffer is through the negative emotion of helplessness. We were born into the world in a profound state of helplessness. Years have passed, but emotional memories of childhood helplessness linger in our psyche. Now we can feel helpless to influence loved one, to get ahead in our careers, and to have an impact on local or national events. Most painfully, we can feel helpless to regulate our emotions and behaviors. Two common symptoms of our entanglement in helplessness are procrastination and the feeling of being overwhelmed.
The problem is that helplessness can become a kind of default position—we hate it, and yet we can’t imagine how we can make it any different. We have to begin to recognize the unconscious choice we are making to stay in the passive mode of self-doubt and indecision. Every time we recognize that we have slipped into our default position of helplessness, we are nudging ourselves away from it. We have to be careful, though, that we don’t spring out of it with inappropriate, negative, often angry aggression. This is just flipping over to the other extreme and failing to find the middle ground.
Next comes rejection. Rejection hurts the most when we take it personally. In taking it personally, we are going to a weak spot in our psyche. In childhood, we were very sensitive to feeling rejected. For instance, if Mommy or Daddy gave our brother or sister what we thought was too much attention, we could feel rejected. Ideally, as we age, we develop more objectivity and wisdom. If someone is rejecting us, we understand that the rejection may be happening because of the other person’s unresolved issues and flawed perceptions. If we are emotionally strong enough, we consider the possibility that some characteristic or behavior on our part may have contributed to the rejection—and we try to rectify that weakness of ours. We make the situation into a learning experience instead of an opportunity to suffer.
If, as adults, we are experiencing rejection repeatedly and taking it personally, we’re using rejection as a favorite way to suffer. Consciously, we want to be accepted and loved; unconsciously, we expect rejection and are “programmed” to keep experiencing it and making it happen. The rejection hurts so much because we use the pain of it to cover up or deny our attachment to it: “I’m not attached to the rejection—Look at how much it hurts and how much I hate it.”
The last of the four is criticism. Many of us depend on our skills, intelligence, and personality to feel okay about ourselves. Many children are raised with the sense that their value in the eyes of their parents depends on how clever or competent they are. We can, it often feels, be appreciated much more for our performance and cooperation than for our essential self. So when criticism comes our way, it can feel as if the ground is giving way beneath us. Even unfair, unjustified criticism penetrates into our uncertainty about our self. This means that, as with rejection, we absorb the negative implications about our worth and value. Unconsciously, we give to others the power to invalidate us with their impressions and comments. This happens when our connection to our own self is weak and unstable. When we’re stronger, we don’t take criticism personally. If we’re wise, we examine the criticism objectively to see if it has any validity. If it doesn’t, we just deflect it and go about our business without being emotionally upset.
Live a happier life by making these four ways to suffer more conscious so you can avoid them. You won’t suffer when you expose the secret ways that suffering sneaks into your daily life.