Pop Quiz: What is the difference between pain and suffering?

Jun 2, 2022

by JoJo Little, LCSW

There are certain circumstances in life which we cannot fix, we cannot problem solve, and we cannot change. To name a few: how others react, our past experiences, our genetic disposition, death, natural disasters, etc. One might ask: are we just meant to suffer?

Make a fist with your right hand. This is pain. Pain might be sadness, disappointment, anger, grief, boredom, or anxiety. This pain in our lives is inevitable. Now take your left hand and cup it over your right fist. The pain has now doubled in size and has now morphed into what we call suffering. This left hand represents the rejection of our inevitable pain. We reject pain because it is—well—painful. We do this in many ways by denying, panicking, avoiding, suppressing, or fighting this pain. The goal is to let the left hand go—in other words to accept the pain, thus releasing our suffering.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) we say suffering = pain + non-acceptance.

How do we accept? Radical acceptance is acknowledging what is with our mind, body, and soul. Accepting our reality does not mean we approve of our reality, make light of our reality, or are passive. However, if we can gently acknowledge what is instead of what we wish it could be then we stop fighting our reality. It is the fighting of our own reality that leads to suffering. If my life is a book, I can hate chapter three but I need to accept that chapter three happened in order to move forward. Chapter three exists whether I like it or not. Change cannot begin to occur until we have accepted the past and the present moment.

Pain is inevitable. To love is to experience pain. To live is to experience pain. Suffering; however, is a choice.

When you find yourself saying “Why me?” or “This is so unfair” you are probably stuck in a state of suffering (non-acceptance). Rejecting our reality does not change our reality so why would we choose to suffer?

A father has a son who is an alcoholic. He has always fantasized a future where he and his son sit on the back porch drinking beers and shooting the shit. Much to his dismay, his son grows up and struggles with addiction. The father has a difficult time accepting this reality. He ignores instances of destructive behavior and attributes it to an issue of will power or immaturity. When others mention concern he unintentionally invalidates their fears. He talks about when his son will “be able” to drink again.

Why might he reject the reality that his son is an alcoholic? To avoid the pain of acceptance. With acceptance comes relief as well as a deep sadness (pain). This avoidance keeps people stuck in their suffering. Not only does Dad have to acknowledge the pain associated with his son’s health but he also has to mourn the loss of an idea he’s been holding onto for years. He has to accept that his relationship with his son will be different than what he once imagined.

Let go of suffering. You will feel the pain, but eventually, you will also feel great relief, which tells you that you have entered a place of acceptance. The pain will bring you to peace.