Three Things I've Learned about Psychological Suffering



“Every psychic advance of man arises from the suffering of the soul.”

Carl Jung, CW 11, Par. 497

As it often happens when I write about a painful or controversial issue, I lost two e-mail subscribers after WordPress published my last post on death.  Yet within five days four new ones signed on! I won’t pretend I don’t suffer when a subscriber leaves.  I do.  (By the way, I never know their names. I only know when the numbers on my stats change.)  But it’s getting easier; partly because I almost always gain new subscribers after the same posts.

Plus, my grandchildren are giving me a new perspective on this kind of suffering.  Since the current school year started last month I’ve watched their struggles to adjust to new classes that separate them from old friends.  Yet they’re already making new ones. What I’m realizing is that their experiences parallel mine.  Losses are inevitable for every growing thing.

So I won’t apologize for writing about suffering. I’m not equipped to comment on physical suffering or clinical depression, so these are my thoughts about the normal psychological suffering everyone experiences. The young adult’s post-school struggles to find him/herself, connect with a life partner, and find satisfying, meaningful work. The unforeseen accidents or losses of a home, job, friend, partner, child or other beloved family member. The existential angst some souls suffer at midlife. The daunting challenges of aging.

Here’s what personal experience has taught me about everyday psychological suffering.

First, it comes to all of us.  Many people’s first response to serious suffering is to think something like, “Why me?  What did I do to deserve this?  Why is God punishing me?” But, as a believer in the omnipotence of Love,  I don’t see suffering coming from a judgmental, vengeful God.  I see it as a natural consequence of being alive!  You live; you die.  You win;  you lose.  Good things happen;  bad things happen. Sometimes you’re happy; sometimes you’re sad.  Life comes with a full range of emotions:  not just pleasure, but pain too. That’s just the way Life is, and wishful thinking cannot change it.

For the Tibetans of northern India who are taught at an early age to accept the fact of suffering (as my friend, Elaine Mansfield, tells me), this knowledge is liberating.  It means I don’t have to take suffering personally. This frees me from misplaced guilt and self-blame.  Nor do I have to conform to my tribe’s or religion’s restrictive standards and beliefs.  If I’m going to suffer anyway, I might as well do it in service to fueling my light instead of hiding it.

Second, suffering can be our worst enemy. Like a devil who promises eternal happiness, it whispers, “Run away!  Escape!  You don’t need to put up with this.” The problem with escape mechanisms is that they only compound our suffering.  Immature egos don’t know that the only way to avoid future suffering is to deal with current suffering, so most of us are extremely vulnerable to this kind of dead-end thinking.

And suffering whispers, “This is intolerable. Do something. Quick!”  But impulsive behavior erodes the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.  It diminishes our ability to accept responsibility for our part in our suffering, and causes unnecessary pain for us and those we blame.

The third thing I’ve learned is that psychological suffering can also be our best friend.  Like a good teacher it gives us many opportunities to learn more about ourselves, and self-knowledge always leads to wisdom.

Like a loving inner Magician who sees the bigger picture of our life and passionately wants to help us thrive, suffering offers us a magic wand:  the power of choice!  But this gift comes with a stipulation:  We are the only ones who can choose to transform our intolerable situation, and the only way we can make this happen is by tolerating the tension until the solution arrives in its own time.  When it does, it is accompanied by a deepened spirituality, an expanding awareness of the purpose and meaning of our lives, and a strengthened ego with the power to make healthier choices.

Life comes with realities an immature ego can’t understand. But trusting Life to guide us through our suffering without attempting to escape or control it can transform us into maturing conscious beings.

How have you experienced this truth?

Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.  Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.

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0 Responses

  1. A thoughtful and gently provocative post. I,too, in times of questioning the “why’s” of suffering wonder about the purpose of it. I want to draw something of value from it.Perhaps there is nothing else to say except that it is part of the balance of life. The good with the bad…the light with the dark. How do we know “happiness”without “sadness.”

    1. Your comment about wanting to draw something of value from suffering reminded me that I had intended to write more about the meaning and purpose we can derive from it. I did go back and add a few words about that, but it would take more posts to say all I want to say. I’m especially interested in unpacking the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s a complex paradox. If by that, we mean something like, “God caused my child to die so I would learn compassion,” I simply can’t agree because I don’t believe God does that to us. Nevertheless, suffering can have decidedly positive consequences. So if we mean, “There is a lesson in everything that happens if we look for it,” I would totally agree. That redirects our attitude away from an inflated sense of helplessness at the hands of a deliberately cruel fate and toward one of personal empowerment and choice regardless of what happens to us.

      1. Hi Jean, It’s interesting you should raise the question of “everything happens for a reason”. A week ago last Sunday I read an article in the New York Times by a psychologist, Paul Bloom. I wrote a response to it and am taking the liberty of reproducing it here. It contains a link to tha article itself.
        What does a paranoid and an empathetic person have in common? I would have thought nothing until I opened the Sunday New York Times today and read the article “Does Everything Happen for a Reason?” Everything Happens for a Reason by Paul Bloom and Konika Banerjee both of Yale’s psychology department.
        The answer surprised me. Apparently paranoid and empathetic personalities both tend to believe in fate and to attribute reason and purpose in their lives. “The more likely people are to think about other people’s purposes and intentions, [empathetic/paranoid-mine] the more likely they are to also infer purpose and intention in human life itself.”
        The article speaks of events that are interpreted as signs or guidance by this sort of individual. Unless one has experienced such forceful and meaningful events, it’s hard for many to imagine just how one could conclude from them there is a God or that purpose is revealed. Often such a person feels that the universe is on the lookout [in a good way] for him or her.
        But leaving those questions aside for a moment— Isn’t it great that so many do feel the world and our lives in it, have an underlying order—that they do have important meaning and purpose?
        If we did not believe that, why would we strive to find that buried order? Perhaps that belief and the search for that order is the bed-rock seat of our creativity.

        1. Hi Mary,
          What an interesting synchronicity that we’ve both picked up on this concept that is apparently surfacing into collective consciousness in a big way these days.
          Empathetic-Paranoid is pretty much my type too! 🙂 And I’m always finding meaning in everything and purpose and intention in human life. So I guess that makes sense. But as I said in my earlier comment, this is such a paradox because I am fully aware of the injustice in the world and I don’t associate this way of thinking with religious beliefs about an omnipotent deity that has foreordained everything that happens. Rather I see it as a natural consequence of all the inner work I’ve done and the self-knowledge and consciousness I’ve acquired, which I see as a spiritual journey. The intention I’m talking about is that humanity is intended to evolve into greater consciousness, and we have this inner urge to do so, and so each advance I make in this direction is deeply meaningful to me and fills my life with purpose. It’s funny how two people can use the same words and phrase and yet mean very different things.
          I don’t feel like I’ve expressed it adequately, but then, it is a Mystery! 🙂 Thank you for sending the link to the article. It’s been great fun discussing this issue with you!

  2. Jean, What an interesting on-line group we are; your last post brought me comfort and relief! A big YES to ” tolerating the tension until the solution arrives in its own time” – as incredibly painful as the waiting (+reflecting, writing and trying to work out what might help) may be. Thank you 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Catherine. Yes, the waiting is not passive, but proactive. The choice is not to sit back and be a victim, but to start studying and reflecting on our situation in a deeper way that gradually empowers us. Thanks for mentioned that!

  3. Over the years your blog posts have become a synchronized magical friend who always shows me the way when the going gets tough.

    1. I. Love. This. It speaks to the deep connection between like-minded souls regardless of external circumstances. I’m so grateful the universe works this way!! 🙂

  4. Jeanne, I am printing out this post to read tonight as I’m leading a discussion on my book “The Living Spirit of the Crone-Turning Aging Inside Out,” which amplifies the part suffering (in love) is part of life and part of human development. Once again thank you for your willingness to confront and illuminate hard issues.

  5. Hi Jeanie,
    Great post. The irony, as you so aptly pointed out, is that avoidance does create more and more suffering. We have discussed several times the influence of “Type” on processing, and I would love to add the embodiment/feeler perspective here, of course 😉
    When suffering is avoided, and you’ve learned to tune into the body, eventually the body delivers sharp messages one is no longer capable of ignoring. This has delivered times of great expansion for me. After all, by allowing ourselves to feel and truly grieve (so undervalued and ignored in modern culture IMHO) we expand our capacity for compassion and our ability to hold witness to the suffering of others, yes?
    I love a woman who isn’t afraid of the Dark!

    1. Thank you, Amanda.
      Yes, of course you’re absolutely right about the body’s physical mirroring of psychological pain. I often find that the afflicted part of my body is a metaphor for the ignored psychological pain: i.e. foot problems for one who won’t develop or act on his/her standpoint, throat problems for one who won’t speak his/her truths, etc. There was a time some years ago when I got two or three painful styes in my left eye. The left side is feminine. My symptoms said, “Eye (I) hurt.” My feminine side was, indeed, hurting because I was repressing some painful emotions. As you can imagine, this was enormously instructive to me. And yes, the more I can feel and grieve, the more I can feel compassion for the suffering of others. Thank you for making some wonderful points.
      I love a woman who isn’t afraid of the Dark, too! 🙂

  6. NOTE TO READERS: You may have noticed that some of your comments have been lost in the ether recently. The one from Mary that I’ve reproduced below is the fourth example in two weeks! It stayed on my Iphone old mail (which is why I could copy and paste it here) but disappeared from this site. I’ve finally figured out that whenever I open one of your comments on my Iphone, it somehow sends a message to WordPress telling it not to accept the comment! I know. Totally bizarre. Mercury in retrograde? Anyway, here’s Mary’s latest omment and my response.
    maryemartin commented on Three Things I’ve Learned about Psychological Suffering
    I will not apologize for writing about suffering. I’m not equipped to comment on physical suffering or clinical depression, so …
    Hi Jean
    I’m interested in your thought about this question [of the purpose-filled event] surfacing in the collective unconscious. I haven’t really thought of it that way but I think that must happen. I, too, have experienced a life full of synchronicity [too many instances to count] and this has led me in interesting directions…the study of Jung and Joseph Campbell and physics at a very lay-level. In fact, these synchronistic occurrences have caused me to write The Trilogy of Remembrance in which my protagonist encounters the conundrum—how can an omniscient and loving god “permit” the evil in the world. It’s a pleasure to exchange thoughts here with you.
    Hi Mary,
    Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has a theory about morphogenic fields that you might want to explore. Roughly, it’s that when one organism of a species makes a new evolutionary adaptation of some sort, this information is “stored” in the invisible field in which the entire species is enveloped. At some point another member of the species picks up the adaptation , and then another, until enough members of the species are influenced to make this adaptation that it becomes commonplace. In other words, there’s information sharing going on at some deep, invisible level we aren’t aware of.
    This would apply not only to biological changes but also psychological ones, at least in humans. Thus the well-known phenomenon that scientists from all over the world who don’t even know each other suddenly publish papers on the exact same new topic or idea in the same period of time……because this new awareness is entering collective consciousness. Please don’t quote me on this; it’s a very rough approximation of the theory. Anyway, this is the phenomenon I was referring to above when I said, “we’ve both picked up on this concept that is apparently surfacing into collective consciousness in a big way these days.”
    When things like this happen, we might rightly call it a synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. Synchronicities refer to meaningful coincidences between our inner and outer worlds. I’m thinking about my best friend and she calls. I’m seeking an answer to a pressing question, pull out a book, and randomly open to the exact page containing the answer. I dream about a beautiful place setting and see it in an antique shop the very next day. Or, you stumble across my blog and discover that I’m writing about the exact same thing you have just been exploring with fascination. So your inner world fascination is confirmed by this outer world chance discovery. And as for me, I, too, am struck by the synchronicity of having just written about suffering and one of my readers sends me a link to a paper she’s just written about it.
    I hope that helps. Jeanie

  7. Jeanie – preach on, sister! I get similar responses with my music. Some people seem to want to avoid the blues or atrocities of life of don’t want to hear a sad love song or the like. Conversely, for me – and I think through most of time – cultures have used music to name and sing THROUGH suffering. A biological, emotional release to the pressure cooker of suffering emotions which may build up inside us. The African – American enslaved times certainly bore that out in music. God bless them! And years later we have jazz and rhythm and blues. I could get long winded here… many more examples… I call it the art of letting go ~

    1. “…cultures have used music to name and sing THROUGH suffering…” Thank you for making this excellent point. There was a time when I couldn’t feel my own pain, but at sad or beautiful or inspiring music the tears would flow! And there’s a certain nobility to suffering that I feel deep in my bones, (as in, “Amen, sister. Amen!”) when I hear or sing jazz, gospel, or blues—all favorites of mine! Music truly does have the gift of teaching us “the art of letting go.” Thank you for this!

  8. And here’s one from Brian Carlin, whose comments keep disappearing in the internet ether:
    “Talking of solutions arriving in their own time, a few years back I went
    through several depressive episodes, which all had a numbness, a flatness of
    emotion, all the lessnesses which would sit with me for a time and then
    evaporate slowly. The last of them came and it was deeper and heavier, like a
    big brown mantle pushing on me, and at what was my nadir, I found myself
    roaring, tears bursting out, in the middle of a supermarket aisle, and as it
    came I found the deepest cleansing in the emotion, and an ecstasy in being
    gifted with this moment. I have not had any episodes of depression since. I
    think I was taken where I needed to be at my own pace, and I know that I will
    not need to go through that experience again.. The revelation of the numinous.
    Am now off to read about Mr Sheldrake and his morphic resonance.”

    1. What a beautiful experience, Brian. What I find especially meaningful is that it came when one would presumably feel most vulnerable: i.e., in a public setting, a place where you could easily run across half a dozen people you know! To me this seems to address one of the possible causes of some depressions: a wounded ego’s need to withhold one’s truths from society by hiding under a persona it finds more acceptable. For example, something like a hearty “hail-fellow-well-met” attitude, or a tendency to act like a joker or trickster in public when one feels anything but playful inside. At the same time it speaks to an empowered, maturing ego that has found the strength and freedom to cast off an ill-fitting persona. This is a step we all need to take on our journey to individuation and wholeness, but it is often delayed or avoided altogether by our refusal to face and tolerate the tension of our suffering. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s a perfect example not only of this post, but of the theme of this blog.

  9. Your quote: “Like a loving inner Magician who sees the bigger picture of our life and passionately wants to help us thrive, suffering also offers us a magic wand: the power of choice!” Really made me sit up and take notice. Loving-Inner-Magician makes the suffering process seem so incantatory and hallowed. I broke my (right) ankle on the last day of May this year. 6 titanium screws and a metal plate. June essentially marked the anniversary of four years – when a great sea change beginning with my brother’s death came over my life – crashing wave after crashing wave. I do not exaggerate when I say a very tough go. I see now that I made choices (waving the wand offered by the Loving Inner Magician) when recuperating: to revamp, reorient, reposition. I view the broken ankle as absolutely the best thing that could have happened. As unfortunate as it was.

    1. Thank you for this wonderful example of the opportunities inherent in suffering, Steven. “I view the broken ankle as absolutely the best thing that could have happened. As unfortunate as it was.” I’m so sorry for your loss of your brother and your broken ankle. Such misfortunes can be unbearable. Yet, there definitely is an extraordinary, almost magical healing power in suffering if we can find a way to open to it. An old friend broke both wrists playing tennis and used the recuperation period to face a terrible truth from childhood. In the process, her creativity came pouring out in the form of poetry and art and this has transformed her life. She, too, saw her suffering as the best thing that could have happened to her. Perhaps we could say that suffering, fully faced and grieved, has the power to tap into the wellsprings of our creativity?

  10. I also wanted to underscore your comment that “Loving-Inner-Magician makes the suffering process seem so incantatory and hallowed.” In my experience suffering is a major, if not THE major opportunity for the Sacred to break through our ego’s resistance. The following quote from Carl Jung makes this point much better than I can:
    “The goal of psychological, as of biological, development is self-realization or individuation. But since [we] know [our self] only as an ego, and the self, as a totality, is indescribable and indistinguishable from a God-image, self-realization . . .amounts to God’s incarnation. . . . And because individuation is an heroic and often tragic task, the most difficult of all, it involves suffering, a passion of the ego: the ordinary empirical [person] we once were is burdened with the fate of losing one’s self in a greater dimension and being robbed of [our] fancied freedom of will.
    [We] suffer, so to speak, by the violence done to [us] by the self. . . . [“Self” is Jung’s term for our Sacred core and circumference, also defined as our God-image]
    The human and the divine suffering set up a relationship of complementarity with compensating effects. Through the Christ-symbol, , [we] can get to know the real meaning of [our] suffering, [and we are then] on [our] way toward realizing [our] wholeness.
    As the result of the integration of conscious and unconscious, [one’s] ego enters the “divine” realm, where it participates in “God’s suffering.”
    The cause of the suffering is in both cases the same, namely “incarnation,” which on the human level appears as “individuation.”

    1. I can’t resist sharing one more quote from Jung:
      To this day “God” is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.
      (These words came originally from a letter Dr. Jung wrote in December 1959, two years before his death, to a man described only as “M. Leonard”, an Englishman located in King’s College, England.)

  11. Yes. As always, thank you. I love the way you write about this.
    All Buddhists (you speak of the Tibetan tradition) accept that life-in-form incurs suffering, and that our way out of suffering is not by trying to escape it but not to invest so much energy in crying about it, evading or resisting it; rather to see the transient and uncertain nature of everything: ‘This too will pass.’
    There’s some evidence that, in my country, the early Celts understood this truth, too.
    And yes, isn’t it true that we really do grow through suffering and loss, and that growing also inevitably includes those two companions?
    I like what Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks of: that we suffer because we don’t accept the ‘death’ part of the natural life/death/life cycle, instead craving only sweetness and ease.
    I like Keat’s concept of ‘negative capability’ in this context, as a kind of guide: finding the ability to sit with uncertainty until the time is ripe for it to change, rather than striving to act one way or the other, out of fear.
    Keep these wonderful posts coming, Jean; a dose of sanity.

    1. Thank you, Roselle.
      I like Estes’ perspective. I think that our fear of the ‘death’ part of the cycle of life is the basis for all psychological suffering. It’s a natural consequence of being a conscious being. If we’re aware of the fact that we’re alive, we also know we’re going to die. As far as we know, animals don’t worry about death because they’re too busy living, thus they don’t suffer the existential angst a human soul does. Certainly they, like we, suffer when their dying is accompanied by physical pain, but they don’t seem to “invest so much energy in crying about it, evading or resisting it.” It just is what it is.
      Keats ‘negative capability’ concept is certainly right in line with what I’m saying. We have the same capacity as a beloved pet to sit with our suffering until change comes, and choosing to do this saves us a lot more grief!
      I appreciate your input. Keep these wonderful comments coming! 🙂

  12. I’m pleased to come across this post again Jeanie. I was amazed to see it is from Oct 2014, and that I made a brief comment 🙂 It is as fresh now as then – it will always be fresh. I read the NY times article – which I don’t think I did before, and would add that in the suffering we just sit and don’t move until such a time comes; and to check any hidden agenda behind the choices we make so that are choices are fully conscious. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Susan. Yes, waiting and reflecting on our hearts’ truths is an essential part of the healing process. Thank you for that contribution. You’ve obviously been there too! 🙂

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