Who would you be without your suffering?

Who would you be without your 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 ofdeprivation, 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.

Using awareness of these four common types of suffering may help to pry its bony grip from your precious mind…

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Deliverance From the Lonesome Blues

Deliverance From the Lonesome Blues

We can resolve the inner weaknesses that make loneliness so painful.

More people are living alone than ever. In America, forty percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. Many people happily live alone—but others are tormented by the wail of the Lonesome Blues. That oldie can echo in our ears even when we’re surrounded by friends and family.

Loneliness is a common brand of human suffering. Many believe that loneliness is an inescapable fact of human existence, a curse we’re fated to endure from birth to death. The novelist Thomas Wolfe spoke to this idea: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

Wolfe was famous and admired during his lifetime, which apparently offered little solace or good company for his loneliness. Even “super-famous” Albert Einstein succumbed to the misery. “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely,” he candidly commented. Being a rich celebrity doesn’t appear to help: “Hollywood is loneliness beside the swimming pool,” observed the actress Liv Ullmann.

Loneliness appears to have infiltrated if not occupied human nature. Impervious to the exhilarations of fame, wealth, and power, it produces assorted misery, ill health, and increased risk of heart disease. Maybe we can’t exterminate it, but we can see and understand the emotional weaknesses that make loneliness more painful than it would otherwise be. Being human is challenging enough. We don’t have to endure unnecessary suffering.

Most people who suffer with chronic loneliness are entangled in unresolved emotional attachments. Unwittingly, they chose to recycle unresolved emotions from their past. Usually these are associated with feeling unloved, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned.

Although it defies common sense, we go looking for old hurts that are unresolved from our past. We do not do this in order to resolve the hurts. Instead, we do it to relive the hurts. Whatever is unresolved in our psyche produces inner conflict that has a life of its own. The conflict can persist—and often get worse—until the day we die. The conflict behind loneliness is often our wish to feel loved and connected to life versus our unconscious willingness to go on feeling the old familiar abandonment and sense of being unloved.

We can be helpless to stop the suffering and self-defeat produced by the conflict when we don’t clearly enough see the nature of the conflict. Instinctively, we deny the existence of the conflict. Unconsciously, we offer up our loneliness as “proof” that we’re not colluding in our own suffering. Our unconscious defense maintains: “Are you nuts! I don’t want to feel unloved! I’m not clinging to old hurts! Can’t you see, in my loneliness, how desperately I want love and connection in my life!”

Who would have thought that loneliness can be part of a psychological defense? The loneliness defends us from the inner truth we hate to acknowledge because that truth is so amazing and humbling. In other words, we produce loneliness in order to cover up our willingness to experience again and again what’s unresolved in our psyche. The defense is offered up to our superego, the hidden master of our personality, which protests against our indulgence in our suffering. Here’s another rendition of the defense: “How can you suggest that I’m secretly invested in feeling unloved and abandoned! My loneliness proves how much I want to be loved. Look how much I suffer from the feeling of not being loved! Look at how much I hate being alone! Surely that proves that I’m not still clinging to the opposite feeling.”

The individual can make this defense more convincing by feeling more intensely the pain of loneliness. As with most of our psychological defenses, we often have to increase the level of suffering and self-defeat in order for the defense to continue over time to be effective (in the sense of deluding us). This produces (when loneliness or some other symptom such as anger is used as a defense) a stubborn determination to hold on to the misery of it.

Other factors can be at play on the field of loneliness. We can be fearful of not being accepted by others and fearful of being a disappointment to them. This means we’re emotionally attached to feelings of not having value and not being worthy. In a sense, we’re abandoning our own self by not believing in our self. “It’s so lonely when you don’t even know yourself,” an observer once noted. It’s more to the point to say, “It’s so lonely because you don’t know yourself.”

A harsh superego or inner critic, one that mocks and harasses us at the slightest provocation, can also create more feelings of isolation and loneliness. So can our inner passivity, which can paralyze us in a helpless conviction that there’s no escape from loneliness.

A remedy was proposed by Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Laureate who wrote Siddartha, a novel about the spiritual journey of an Indian man at the time of Buddha. Hesse said, “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.”

Key words in this passage are, “But then our solitude is overcome . . .“ The pain of our solitude is overcome when we’re sincerely interested in escaping this suffering and have the insight to do so. It helps to stay conscious of our resistance to letting go of suffering.

Once we see and begin to undo our attachments to feeling passive, rejected, unloved, and abandoned, we do, as Hesse said, connect with our innermost self and the whole of existence. Loneliness no longer fits across our shoulders. It falls by the wayside, a worn-out cloak that fades in the distance along with the wail of the Lonesome Blues.

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