Embracing Suffering

By Amy Davis, LMHC

Life is hard and seems to just get harder. And as I write these words, I feel like I understand this now, more than ever. This last month has been one of the most difficult for me, personally. At its worst, the month has come with unexpected losses, grief, terror and pain. Even as a counselor with a long list of “coping skills,” it would still be easy to let circumstances overwhelm me, because life is hard. However, I believe I have the choice, just like anyone else, to choose to suffer well. And I believe the core of this includes embracing pain and suffering. It sounds backwards and unpleasant. But what I have found to be true is this –

Those who embrace suffering, feel better quicker.

And that’s what we’re all going for, right? To eventually feel better. See, in my own season of suffering, and from the many I have had the honor of helping through their difficult seasons as a counselor, I have learned some invaluable tools to get through life’s valleys. Although, I would like to wish a perfect and pain free world into reality, I do not see this happening anytime soon.

So here are 10 keys to help you embrace suffering and suffer well:

1. Give yourself grace and space to “be a mess” – It’s okay to not be okay. Actually, it’s more then okay, it’s good for you. Don’t fake it, to yourself, or to others. Accept yourself for just where you are because you actually can’t be anywhere else. The most defeating thing I see people do is beat themselves up for going through a hard time, telling themselves, “I shouldn’t be upset” or “I should be over it by now.” That kind of self talk just adds guilt to an already difficult situation, making it worse. Worse is not what we’re going for here – we want to feel better. Statements like, “I accept myself unconditionally,  just as I am right now”, tend to work for the better, and will eventually help us recover, even if it is hard or we don’t believe it at first.

2. Let yourself feel, and feel it all– feelings will NOT kill you.  I promise. Avoidance gives the illusion of making things smaller, but it actually makes things bigger, keeping them around longer than if you could risk letting yourself feel. Your feelings might seem like they will overwhelm you and never stop if you let them out,  that’s okay. Feelings are always valid, but they aren’t always truth. The funny thing is, if you actually let yourself feel, eventually feelings become less intense. In therapy, this is called exposure and has great research behind it. Research says that successfully going towards the pain, instead of away from it, lessens the anxiety and emotional distress. So commit to letting yourself feel each emotion as it comes.

3. Talk about it! Then talk about it some more – seek out healthy supports for yourself. When those close to you ask how you’re doing, give them honest answers. Your difficulties are not a burden to others. Even if people don’t get it, or validate you in the way you would like, talk about it anyway. Their lack of acceptance is really about them, not you. Plus, it’s the actual act of releasing burdens that helps you to feel better not others “fixing you.” If you don’t have healthy outlets to talk to, start now to develop some, or seek out counseling for yourself.

4. Be kind to yourself and practice good self care – Do things that make your soul feel alive. Go to the park, enjoy a yoga class, garden, sit in a hammock, journal, paint, pray, play music, soak in a bath, ride a bike, read a book, get a massage, take a nap, go to a movie, go on a hike or cook your favorite meal. Make yourself a priority, fight for time to yourself. It is your responsibility to get these needs met, no one else’s. There is joy to be found even in great pain if you seek it out.

5. Validate yourself, especially for little successes – If you can really do step 1, and accept yourself right where you are, then you can begin to truly give yourself credit for each small step you take towards healing and growth. Do not wait to “arrive” at your goal to pat yourself on the back and say “good job.” You need encouragement daily, and it is your job to give yourself that gift. This doesn’t make you prideful, it makes you kind and confident. Therefore, take notice of something you did well today.

6. Remember to see the good – Is there anything you can find to be thankful for? This might take digging deep, again, that’s okay. The act of setting your mind intentionally on the good, can actually improve your mood. This is not avoidance, you still need to feel it (step 2) and talk about it (step 3), but you do not have to get stuck in self pity. Sometimes making a list of what we do still have going for us, can help us in those darker moments when we tend to forget.

7. Let go of bitterness and unforgiveness – Although it is okay to be angry, you don’t want to let anger and hurt fester into bitterness. The bible gives us an important perspective on suffering and pain in Ephesians 6:12, “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”  When we hurt, it is not just about the mistakes of others or what we are experiencing, there is a true spiritual war going on and a real enemy who wants to make us ineffectual. Even beyond the spiritual aspects, forgiveness has also been proven in many studies to have physical and emotional benefits when compared to those who choose not to forgive.

8. Change your perspective – life is supposed to be hard. Yet, we are always shocked when it happens to us. I say “us” because I am with you in this one. I know this to be true, but it’s still really hard. It’s hard to feel broken, it’s hard to see those you love hurting, it’s hard when things seem to go horribly wrong. Take some comfort in the fact that God warns us, in John 16:33 that in this world we WILL have troubles. Not we might, but we WILL have trouble. If we can change our expectations, to expect difficulties, we can start to see purpose in pain. To do as James 1:2 says, to consider troubles an opportunity for great joy. This happens when you understand that your stretching leads to growth, faith, and endurance. And those traits are often what prepares you for a new season that is coming. Accepting that life is supposed to be hard is the beginning of joy.

9. Clean out the junk – get rid of bad habits, unhealthy relationships, poor coping skills and choose health for yourself, even when it’s really hard and feels uncomfortable. Put yourself in a healthy community, and ask for help. Don’t hold anything too tightly, because control is an illusion. Instead, allow yourself to totally surrender to God’s input and keep praying lofty prayers like, “Anything you want for me God.”

10. Take courage, God is with us – don’t let fear grip your heart. Courage comes when you know that God is good and that He is with you. And it can be hard in suffering to recall those truths, but remember step 7, you are in a spiritual war – but God is on your side. God is with you. He is close to you. He never leaves you. His presence is your comfort – not being safe or comfortable. He sees your pain and stands in solitude with you, and there is so much comfort in His company.

Since it’s the Christmas Season, I’d like to wrap this up with a story of Jesus’ mother, Mary – someone who suffered well, yet we don’t typically think of her suffering when we remember her story. In Luke 2:35, Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was waiting for Jesus’ coming, blesses Mary, then tells her “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Here, Simeon is talking about the sufferings and death of Jesus. Can you imagine as a mother what it must have been like to watch your son be beaten and brutally murder? It would deeply afflict Mary’s soul! Feeling like a literal sword had pierced it. But, Mary gladly accepted embarrassment; being pregnant, out of wedlock, in her day. She was okay with inconvenience; having a baby in a barn. She embraced suffering that felt like a sword through her soul; watching her son die brutally.  Yet, she praises God for the gift of using her, just a few verses before! In Luke 1:46-50, Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him.”
Why was Mary able to suffer so well? Because she chose to embrace pain as part of the process and saw that there was purpose in it;  that beyond herself, her suffering was for the good of generations to come. You are made for purposes beyond yourself and when you embrace suffering as a part of your story, and trust that God always uses it for good, you too can choose to suffer well.