In psychology, we have many clever sayings that involve acceptance. That which you resist persists, and trouble finds you in every place you don’t want to be. As much as it has become more common to respond to suffering with acceptance and compassion, the trending message is still to do whatever you can to develop resources to avoid suffering all together, so you can live a life solely of pleasure. It sounds great, but because it is unrealistic, people experience much greater suffering when suffering occurs.
The Process of Avoidance
The process of avoidance and increased suffering is a painful one. People develop skills and techniques to deter suffering. Suffering shows up anyway. They are no longer used to managing suffering, so it becomes overwhelming. Rather than acknowledge that the strategy of avoidance might be flawed, they blame themselves. Without the knowledge that this kind of avoidance is actually increasing their suffering, they simply invest even more in their avoidance skillset, and this process of suffering, disappointment, overwhelm, and failure begins again.
Give up Avoiding Suffering
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion share some core principles. Two of which are that suffering is inevitable, and that there is wisdom in the body’s sincere response. If you know that suffering is inevitable, you do not waste your resources in trying to avoid it. Instead, you direct those resources towards living a vibrant life, which includes managing suffering. If you trust the wisdom of your body, when suffering arises you do not fault the body or the mind for suffering. Instead, you trust that because suffering is occurring that it should be acknowledged, accepted, and treated with kindness.
In trusting the wisdom of your body, you also trust that there may be something to be learned from this suffering to enhance your life, and you do nothing to impede this progress. You also accept that your body has the resources to manage it. So often, the most disempowering thing we do is to discredit our body and mind’s ability to tolerate suffering. The body is built to find ways back to homeostasis and well being, or put more simply, it is built to survive.
Giving our body’s permission to manage suffering as it manifests is empowering. The body is given access to all of its resources, which increases its ability to tolerate suffering substantially. If the suffering becomes too much, the mind will take you elsewhere or to more resources for a break. The important shift here from avoidance is that the body and mind merely take you on an impermanent break from suffering when it becomes too much. You come back to the suffering to successfully manage it, once you have the resources. Managing the suffering is pivotal to feeling like you are capable of doing what is necessary to live a full life.
Self-Compassion and Suffering
Self-Compassion practices are so important because they allow suffering, but also provide an increase in resources to manage the suffering. With self-compassion practices, you are afforded the kindness of not holding yourself responsible for the suffering. You are also given the wherewithal to process this suffering in a way that is nurturing and empowering. The more suffering you experience, the more opportunity you have to practice self-compassion.
The more self-compassion you practice, the greater your wisdom, appreciation, compassion, and resourcefulness. Your road will be paved with insight, and kindness, so when suffering shows up the next time you will have what it takes to manage it without making it more. You will also be less distracted from the most meaningful path you can take.
A secret gift of this process is that you will also have more compassion and a greater tolerance for the suffering of others, which will not only help you in your relationship with others but also your relationship to yourself. Unbeknownst to us, we are very affected by the suffering of others. When we don’t have the resources to understand and bring compassion to this suffering, it takes a hold on our well-being and drains our energy.
Bobby the Brave and His Pursuit Of Self-Compassion Over Avoidance
Bobby the Brave, as he came to be known, or Bobby B was a gentle soul, who stood about six foot five inches tall. His greatest hero was a great aunt, who raised him as a boy in the tough streets of Southside Chicago. Bobby B witnessed a lot of violence and human indignities in his childhood, and found a way out through education. Auntie Char (short for Charlene May) gave him every book she could find. She was the first person to read well in her family, and she wanted to pass on this skill and her love of books to Bobby. They bonded over books, and used it as a way to disconnect from the tragedies happening just outside their door.
Bobby did well in college, though he references a steep learning curve. Bobby really started to suffer when he began graduate school in social work. Bobby had a hard time keeping aggressive thoughts out of his mind, things he imagined doing to himself or being done by others. Bobby did not know where these thoughts came from, so Bobby was given the work of (with his eyes open given the scariness of these thoughts) to notice where these thoughts came up in his body, and see what his body did to get rid of them.
Bobby found that when these thoughts were on their way, his throat would tighten (aversion), and when they got there his stomach would tighten (fear). Then, he would splash water on his face, eat something, or try to find something on the internet. Once these feelings had passed, he would find himself spending a lot of time watching short videos on his social media feeds of people being exposed to hardship or violence, partly because he still had friends from his old neighborhood in Chicago, and partly because he felt he could relate.
Bobby was noticeably impassioned about his experience, when he returned to talk about how his distressing thoughts had affected his body. Bobby said that he had always been tall, so people in his neighborhood expected him to be tough. Bobby would walk with his chest out and chin up on his way to and from school. He said that he would ball his fists up like they do in the movies before someone is going to get into a fight. When he got home after school, he would often be sweating from the hard work of pretending to be tough. Sometimes, he would be so anxious that he would crawl under his bed, so no one could find him, and cried on occasion. When asked how Auntie Char reacted, he said that he never told her. He imagined that he made her feel safe too.
Given his experience, Bobby felt that it was accurate to say that his primary influence, albeit being very loving, modeled avoidance of suffering. He suspected that his own experience reinforced that suffering was an overwhelming experience that made him weak, and was best kept from others. We took some time to acknowledge how hard that must have been, and how unfair it was to expect so much from a little boy, perhaps not little in the conventional sense, but little in the sense of age and access to resources. Bobby did something he had never done in front of another man before, he cried.
Once Bobby gathered himself, we looked at his mindfulness experience. We noticed how aversion came before his scary thoughts, which was his body’s way of reminding him that this suffering might be unmanageable. We also noticed how fear came up when these thoughts manifested, and we made space for how intelligent the body was to know both of these things. In looking at his response to fear and aversion, we noticed that he would try to ground his experience in charged physical experiences such as splashing water, eating, or the internet. Then, we noticed that later that day he would find even more suffering on the internet to make sense of or perhaps better tolerate his experience.
It would be hard to not have compassion for what Bobby said next. He asked if he was all messed up. He wanted to know if all of this suffering was some kind of payback for being a coward and a fraud. That was a tough feeling, so we took a moment to sit with it. I told him that, on the contrary, he seemed to be a courageous boy who did everything he could to tolerate great suffering, and to try to protect his Auntie Char from even more suffering by letting her know how much it hurt him. We noticed how much courage it took to him, as a man, to leave the block, and travel halfway around the country to meet unforeseen challenges to make a better life for himself and his family. We also acknowledged how profoundly courageous it was to enter a field like social work in which he would likely be met with the kind of suffering that led him to hide under a bed for safety as a child.
Bobby made a sound I won’t ever forget. It sounded like the air being released from a tire, it was a long steady outflow of air that went on for a considerable amount of time. Of course, he wanted to know if this meant he was not crazy. He had been holding on to this worry since we first met. I congratulated him for letting that thought out, and taking good care of himself in the process. We agreed that it seemed pretty natural that his body would be afraid of new violence in the same way that it was afraid of old violence, and that since Bobby had some distance from this new violence that his mind would spiral with anxiety. The thoughts Bobby was having were warnings, reminders from the past that when violence is afoot that potential harm to himself or others is coming.
Bobby agreed that self-compassion practices or anything that would help him manage these scary thoughts would be worth giving a try. So Bobby B began his courageous quest to sit with really troubling feelings, to acknowledge the suffering, and to bring kindness without shame to his body. Slowly, Bobby was able to tolerate this suffering longer and longer. At an important benchmark, Bobby actually noticed a peaceful feeling coming over his body when he used the self-compassion phrases. He would later describe this feeling as finally realizing that it was both okay to be afraid and to be kind to himself.
After a couple months of these practices, Bobby said that the thoughts almost never came up, and that he had slowly stopped searching for more suffering to witness on social media. The funny thing is that he never told Auntie Char, but when he called her about a month after working on self-compassion practices, she said something odd. She said he sounded good, and that she was glad she didn’t have to worry about him the way she did when he was a boy. This surprised Bobby because he thought that he was the one, who worried about Auntie Char. I told him that the body is not the only thing that has extraordinary intelligence, when it comes to managing suffering and taking really good care of us. Aunties know things too.
If you are suffering and find that by avoiding it that you are suffering more, listen to your body and see if there isn’t something you can do to take care of yourself in the moment. Identify the suffering. Let it pass. Have the wisdom to know that just because you are experiencing suffering now does not meant that you will suffer from it constantly. Take time to be kind to yourself. Do the self-compassion phrases. Put your hand on your heart. Give yourself the ninja hug. Don’t forget to breath. Like all beings you will experience suffering, but it will not define you. Only your heart can do that.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 52. In the Books.