Last week I wrote about 8 ways suffering can help you grow. I reflected on lessons I’m learning through my wife’s recent cancer diagnosis and treatment. If you missed that, you can click here to read it.
As I noted in my last post, there is a common myth about suffering that we often believe, even if we wouldn’t say it out loud:
Suffering is something to be purged, side-stepped, or surgically removed from our lives. The best you can do is cope with suffering.
This myth causes us to miss a very important question:
HOW DO YOU SUFFER WELL?
Have you noticed that when some people go through a trial, they spiral downward never to return to their previous level of functioning? Whereas others not only rebound but end up more gracious, more virtuous, and wiser for the experience? These are the people we want to learn from and be around.
It turns out that it is possible to do better than merely cope with suffering. Suffering can help you grow as a person and a leader, but you have to engage in specific processes that facilitate growth.
In this post, drawing on a growing research literature and my own experience, I want to focus on how you can grow through suffering. What does it look like to suffer well?
HOW TO SUFFER WELL: 5 PRACTICES
There is a growing body of research indicating that people can and do grow through suffering. Here are 5 practices that are backed by research to help you grow through times of struggle.
1. Find safe relationships to process suffering. Suffering is meant to be dealt with in relationship. We all need people to walk alongside us on the journey of suffering. We know from research and our experience that social support plays a huge role in helping people cope with trials and eventually grow from them. You need people who are safe for you to express your true feelings about your pain. Close connections are a positive outcome for those who grow through suffering, but they are also a mechanism for it. This means you need put effort into reaching out to people who can be with you in the midst of a painful time.
This was crucial for both my wife and me during her cancer treatment—and even now, shortly after the treatment. She was able to talk with numerous friends regularly about her experiences. She also reached out to several women who had been through a similar diagnosis. This was very helpful for her. Likewise, I have several friends who checked in with me regularly and listened.
The key to growing through suffering is to not feel alone in it. Others may not be able to change the circumstances, but they can change the way you feel about yourself and the circumstances. Even though it’s difficult when you’re going through a hard time, you need to do your part in reaching out and being vulnerable. A deeper appreciation of vulnerability is one of the positive changes people tend to experience when they grow through suffering.
2. Approach and express emotions. Once you find people to walk with you on this journey, you need to approach and express your emotions, rather than suppress and run from them. Research shows that approaching and expressing your emotions related to suffering leads to positive outcomes. Conversely, research indicates that suppressing emotion leads to negative outcomes, like increased rates of anxiety and depression. You need emotionally safe relationships in order to do this. You have to trust that your vulnerable emotions will be handled with care and compassion. When you express your true emotions in the context of safe relationships, it sets in motion a series of positive processes. You connect more deeply to others, which is healing in itself. In addition, you begin to discover the meaning of your suffering in the context of your life story.
This was definitely true for my wife and me, in our relationship and in relationships with others. There were times we wanted to be strong for each other and not express painful, vulnerable feelings. There is a place for that. But when we did express these things, we grew closer to each other and gained a greater understanding of ourselves.
One recent morning—after treatment had been over for several months—my wife and I were talking and she broke down crying. She told me that she didn’t want to die; that not a day goes by that she doesn’t fear the cancer coming back. That was hard for her to share and painful for me to hear. But it drew us closer together and gave us both a deeper understanding of where we are in this ongoing journey.
3. Process the emotions of suffering all the way through. Once you start talking about and feeling the pain of your suffering, stay with the feelings until you get to the end of the emotional arc. This principle comes from what is sometimes called a “functional” theory of emotion, which suggests that emotions are fundamentally adaptive. Emotions are your automatic evaluation of the events in your life. They provide information that is crucial and they orient you to what is important for your well being. For example, sadness is adaptive because it helps you grieve a loss.
Emotions have a natural arc, or progression, in terms of their intensity and clarity. As you begin to feel the impact of your trial, you may start off ruminating about the situation. It’s important that you don’t stop at this phase. You need to experience your emotions more fully to experience their adaptive benefits.
As you engage in this process with people you trust and continue the arc of the feeling, the meaning becomes clearer, and there is a sense of relief as you experience the full measure of your own emotional truth—the core of your emotion. This is you, and it helps you to feel and discover yourself and discover the meaning of your suffering to you. This helps you move from unintentional rumination to meaning making. And when you experience this, you feel more connected to others and less alone in your suffering.
As my wife and I processed all the emotions related to the cancer, sadness and anxiety gradually transformed into an acceptance of the reality of our new journey, and at times glimmers of gratitude for the wisdom we’re gaining (which you can read about in my last post here).
4. Reflect on and re-order your priorities. Trials have a way of making you re-think your priorities in life. This can help you grow. But you have to actively reflect on what is truly important in life and then be intentional about changing your routines, habits, and rhythms in ways that align with your revised priorities.
For me that is showing up in three ways.
First, it means spending more time with my wife and kids and cherishing the present moment with them. It means deciding to be fully present with them when we’re together. Whether you realize it or not, you are deciding to either be fully present with people or to not be fully present.
Second, in turn, it means working less and accepting my limitations. And maybe on a good day, even embracing my limitations. It means leaving the next item on my to-do list undone when the time has come to do something else, and to trust that I will get the most important work done.
And third, it means finding my identity more in my relationships than in my accomplishments. Accomplishments are fine, but only as they serve the purpose of promoting good.
5. Use your experiences of suffering to help others. Many people find an immense sense of meaning in helping others who’ve gone through similar trials. Even if others didn’t go through the exact same trial as you, using your pain as the fuel for empathy and compassion for others is a way of redeeming your suffering. It helps you create meaning out of it.
Others did this for my wife. She is now doing this for others. She recently had a long conversation with a friend whose sister was just diagnosed with cancer. This helped her friend and it helped my wife to bring something good out of her pain.
This may take a while before you are ready, so don’t rush yourself. But when you’re ready, you’ll know it. You will notice others’ suffering more quickly, and feel for others’ pain more deeply because of what you’ve been through. You can then put these feelings into action and express compassion for others. I hope these practices will help become a better person on the other side of your suffering.
If you found this helpful, share it with your family, friends, and co-workers. Hopefully it will help them too.