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Where Did You Learn That Suffering Is Good?


I’ve had several clients over the years with the daft idea that suffering for its own sake is a beneficial experience. I say daft because I thought so myself in my early days. I remember as a child refusing my father’s offer of a window air conditioner (a big deal in the 1950s!) to show how strong I was. But all I ever did was sweat and lose sleep and wish I’d said yes. I was too ashamed to tell my father I’d changed my mind and, luckily, somewhere down the line, he simply installed the unit. Ah, sweet relief.

Another example occurred when I was skiing with a (so-called) friend. We agreed that he’d drive up to the mountain and I’d drive back. But on our last run, I fell and badly hurt my hand (which later turned out to be broken), yet I insisted on driving home as per our bargain. Never mind what kind of friend (he later turned out to be a world-class jerk) would allow that: What kind of person would do such a punishing thing to herself? 

How I grew up to be that way is another story. The point is that when I write about people who insist on self-torment in marriages, jobs, friendships, activities, or whatever, I know from whence I speak. And then there are clients. I had one who was miserable at work, the first job she’d had since recovering from drug abuse, and endlessly complained about it for good reason. I’d practically beg her to find another job or return to college, but she kept insisting she wanted to stay to show, well, that she could.

Another client stayed in an abusive marriage based on the fact that she believed she needed to suffer because she drank all during her pregnancy and her child grew up to become addicted to alcohol. She kept punishing herself, believing suffering was her penance for an unforgivable sin. Paradoxically, the more she felt like a martyr, the better she felt about herself. 

A third client subscribed to the old “no pain, no gain” adage. His father, a successful professional hockey player, had brought up his three sons to play sports as hard as they could or not play at all. He actually told them that if they weren’t suffering, they weren’t working hard enough. No wonder my client thought agony equaled success. 

Eventually, fortunately, he recognized intentional suffering for what it is: something to avoid. Mind you, tormenting yourself is not to be confused with pain we can’t avoid because it’s woven into the fabric of life and often leads to positive results. What I’m talking about is pain for it’s own sake, making it a goal or a prize, or imbuing it with positive powers and using it to feel good about yourself or prove something. Please, if you lean in this direction, find a therapist to help you untwist this twisted view.