Suffering: a Necessary Pathway to Personal Growth?

February 4, 2014

Suffering and personal growth

by Daniela Aneis

When confronted with painful situations in our lives, we often ask ourselves why. “Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? What have I done to deserve such suffering? What is the point of all this?” But have you ever stopped and wondered you might be asking the wrong questions?

Although the advent of Positive Psychology has swift the focus of Psychology from psychopathology to what it is that makes the human being extraordinary – by focusing on positive emotions, optimism, resilience, sense of humor and so on – Positive Psychology does not discard the incredible power of suffering and the experience of negative emotions. It’s not about avoiding pain and suffering, it’s about finding out what makes people thrive and achieve personal growth despite suffering like everyone else. Are these people special and extraordinary? Yes, but you can be as well.

Yes, but why suffer at all?

You will probably be asking this question by now. That’s got to do with today’s society paradigm. You should be happy all the time, you should be successful and enjoying life to the fullest, you should be surrounded by friends and family and never have any problems because everything is alright all the time! Doesn’t this strike you as a silly idea? Aren’t we allowed to have problems, to feel sad and depressed occasionally? It’s not a crime to experience negative emotions. It’s actually healthy as long as you process them and channel your negative emotions in a constructive way. And this will allow you to grow as a human being and enjoy life to the fullest.

Does suffering have a point?

Yes, it does. So, the real question you should be asking is: “Can I find meaning in my suffering?” Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who was himself a survivor of the Holocaust, defended in his Logotherapy theory that what we should be seeking for meaning in our lives, whether it is through what we do, who we love or the attitude we take over inevitable suffering.

Do you know what happens when you ignore your feelings and emotions? You keep sweeping the “emotional dirt” under the rug, until when one day it blows into your face and you’re forced to deal with it. Do you know when this happens? Often when people get sick or seriously depressed or anxious to the point they can’t lead a normal life. Emotional baggage will drag you down.

How to deal with suffering in a constructive way:

  1. Take responsibility. Most of happens in your life, doesn’t just happen to you. It is a product of the choices you’ve made in life. So ask yourself this, how much percentage of everything that happens to you is your responsibility? Got your number? Good, let’s work on that and ignore what’s not yours.
  2. Deal with emotions. All (!) emotions. Feel sad, cry, yell, feel angry at the world, feel hopeful or happy, but don’t stop feeling. There are no good or bad emotions, just necessary ones. If a loved one passes away, aren’t you going to feel sad for as long as you need to heal from your loss?
  3. Don’t let others bully your emotions. Don’t feel guilty about it. If everyone else around you has bought the slogan “happiness is the way”, that doesn’t mean you can’t feel differently about it. Take time to heal. And then go out there again and face the world.
  4. Take action. Have you processed your emotions? Do you know now why you felt them? Can you change anything about it? Now is the time to take action. Search for a new job, go out and meet new people, try a new activity or sport.
  5. Let go of what you can’t fix. Is it a solvable or unsolvable problem? If the answer is unsolvable, then it already has a solution to it. And if you can’t fix it, let it go. Move on to something you can actually control and manage.

By now you should have your answer, but if you still need a straight one, here it goes: Yes, suffering is a necessary pathway to personal growth. But it is your choice how to deal with your suffering. So tell me, is the glass half full or half empty?

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