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Suffering Root Cause; Learn Suffer Less

It was my first session back with my client after about a year or so. She had completed her divorce and was upset that she just had a fight with her ex-husband. She could feel her blood pressure rising in my office as she spoke of her fight and was clearly suffering over her reaction. What is the root cause of suffering?

She couldn’t understand why she still reacts to her ex-husband in such an angry way. She thought it would be better by now.

A divorce is a difficult process for all of us. Change is more like a few steps forward and a few steps backwards. She hated herself for having such a “big angry” response.

For all of us, we may recall a time when we felt vulnerable or needy and hated ourselves for it. Close your eyes and take a breath. Think of a time when you felt this way, needy and then hating yourself for it.

Reactions to Parents Can Begin The Negative Cycle

When I was 13, I remember a time when I felt just this way. If I were to get straight A’s three times in a row, my mother had promised me a record player (remember those; I just got another one). I received those straight A’s three times in a row. My mother denied me that record player.  She said that she meant to promise me that record player for earning straight A’S all the way through the end of the school year, which was four times in a row. My heart was crushed.

I knew my mother loved me and didn’t mean to hurt me, so I didn’t say anything. All my sensitive feelings began to surge inside of me. I ran to my room to cry and thought to myself, “What is wrong with me? How come I am so stupid? My mother loves me. Why can’t I be more normal like everyone else?

I was punishing myself for feeling negative about my mother so I could stay close to her.  When we turn against ourselves, it is the root of suffering. There are better ways of relating to negative feelings.

Many cases of depression and anxiety have their root in negative reactions to negative feelings. It is hard to overstate the importance of this fact.  We are taught that we should be afraid of our negative feelings, or that we should not have to feel them.

Instead, we too often seem to reinforce the idea that negative emotions are, well, negative. This is a mistake because all emotions are essential to human living.

We may have learned from our mother or father, who coped with his or her own distress through avoidance. Mother or Father taught us to just put on a happy face.  A parent may have shared with us that sensitivity is a weakness. Or, that we ought to not have such strong negative feelings, such feelings were a problem. We need to control ourselves by whatever means possible to crush them.  Unfortunately, we can end up turning against ourselves.

Crushing the Negative Cycle

Why do we turn against ourselves by getting angry for an angry response? We first need to agree that it is painful to have negative feelings and thus, it is only normal to want to avoid them.  Second, negative feelings can create problems if we act impulsively, i.e. physically hurting another person.  Third, we tend to block our negative emotions and these emotions build up until we are completely flooded by them. Fourth, people tend to react badly to anyone acting negatively. Thus, we try to protect our own image in the eyes of others.

We need to create a different kind of attitude toward our negative emotions. Rather than avoiding them or trying to control them or engage in self-attack, we should listen to what our feelings are telling us.  Our emotions can guide us toward long-term valued states of being.

We need to be curious about these negative emotions. We need to know more. All emotions are nothing more than action signals. Emotions do not have an I.Q. and are typically irrational. Or, emotions mean we need to take action.  If we are mad, what rights have been violated and how do we correct the situation to help avoid this from happening again. Curiosity sets the stage for understanding of what is actually happening. Curiosity can set the stage for change.

We also need to accept that we have the ability to be with the pain and the awkwardness without harsh judgment.  This is hard. By practicing a different attitude towards our emotions, we can achieve less suffering. The first principle in Buddhism is that life is suffering.  The Buddha realized that to run from suffering, to pretend it is not there, to try to control it in other ways does not lead to escape. It instead leads to more suffering.

Suffering Less

We will suffer less when we learn that hating ourselves for our feelings results only in greater suffering.  We need to become curious about what our feelings mean, accept them for what they are, and use them to inform ourselves about acting on those feelings or not acting on those feelings i.e., if we are jealous, do we need to work harder to get what they have?

It is hard to learn a new way of thinking. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Hey, it’s hard to do 10 pushups, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do them. Everything is easier said than done. Saying I should do the dishes, is easier than doing the dishes.

Let’s not ignore our feelings. Let’s listen to them and decide if action needs to be taken. And most of all don’t get angry at your feelings.  But do remember, feelings don’t have an IQ. We need to think with our head and feelings and decide if action needs to be taken.

By not hating ourselves for our emotions, we will all rid ourselves of unnecessary suffering for nothing more than what is the normal human condition. We will suffer less depression and anxiety. We will be on the path to a much freer and more fulfilling way of being.

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