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Too Good at Suffering

Some people are good at suffering. Too good. A person can have a lot of stamina, a perseverance in the face of difficulty and pain that is inspiring, but there can be a troubling flip side to this kind of strength, which is the tendency to put off making needed change. I’ve seen this over and over with regards to relationships and job situations. If you’re quite good at suffering, if you regard persistent difficulty as a normal part of life, you’re likely to stay in the same dysfunctional relationship or job for years. Behind this particular skill is usually a history where the person has grown up with some kind of consistent problem over which they had no control due to being a child. Constant parental conflict, domestic violence in the home, a chronic health problem, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, emotional neglect, being bullied year after year in school, poverty, having a parent with a chronic mental illness – all these can create an underlying belief that suffering and difficulty will always be present no matter what you do, no matter how you feel about it. In many people, this belief isn’t conscious. If you were to ask them, “Do you expect life to be full of suffering?” they might well answer a resounding “No!”


But look at their behavior. What about the partner who hates his job for years but never looks for a new one? The person who puts up with a spouse with a gambling or alcohol problem with maybe some complaints but no real demand for change? Or someone who has one painfully emotionally distant relationship after another? These are people who have grown too good at suffering. They can be strong, loyal and loving, and maybe the strength that allows them to live with these chronically awful situations is the same as that which helps them survive an illness or raising a challenging child. But it can be an ill applied strength.


If you have someone like this in your life, or suspect you may be someone like this, it may be good to ask yourself, “Is it true that change is impossible in this difficult situation? How have I gained proof that change is impossible? Have I really turned over every stone, investigated and tried every conceivable method for changing what upsets and hurts me? Have I been assertive and persistently communicated what I want and need? Have I honestly been willing to risk a major change in my life or have I been so afraid that change could make an already difficult situation worse that I’ve been paralyzed?”


Obviously, I’m a big fan of change. It’s what I do for a living. And it’s an absolute passion I have, the belief that most of the time, change is quite possible. It may take a while, it may be a messy process, it may involve trial and error, and moving backward before moving forward. Or it may be as simple as saying, “No, I can’t live with this,” and meaning it. But it all starts with addressing the basic, sometimes unconscious idea that suffering is really all you can expect. Try it out, right now. Say to yourself, “I can expect more.” Feel that little tingle of hope? Now, run with it. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, get help. Talk to a friend, read a book, research it on the internet, talk to a therapist, meditate on it. There are many roads to change. And you could be on one right now.

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