How to decrease suffering?

DBT-C, English, Supersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

Let’s start by delineating the difference between suffering and pain. Pain is a natural part of life. It includes challenges that come our way, as having to deal with either 1) getting what we do not want (e.g., having to do homework, restrictions on computer time, chores) or 2) not getting what we do want (e.g., failing to obtain a coveted position, parents not allowing a sleepover, low funds to purchase a wanted item).

We experience challenges as painful because they bring along change and uncertainty, and our sense of safety prefers certainty and stability, where everything is known and predictable. However, whether we welcome challenges or not, pain is unavoidable AND we also need it, as we learn and gain mastery only by facing and solving problems. When we are relaxing on a beach it is great and necessary to balance out our hectic side of life, however, we do not learn anything new. 

While pain is a natural part of life, suffering is not. Suffering is self-inflicted. It comes from two main sources: 1) not accepting pain and 2) merging “who I am” with “what I do”. 

The first source can be summed up in a formula (pain + not accepting pain = suffering).
When we run away from challenges (e.g., forcing others to change a situation for us, avoiding hard or unpleasant tasks, lying), we do not get rid of pain, we add to it. Problems do not go away. Usually, the longer we avoid dealing with them, the bigger they get. If pain gives us an opportunity to change things, suffering keeps us stuck.

Example: I did not fully understand a math lesson and now I do not want to do homework. The next day, my math teacher was instructing on a new material based on the previous lesson and I was completely lost, which made me even less willing to do homework. And so forth, until I failed the class and had to do summer school.

The second source of suffering can be summed into a formula (“who I am” = “what I do”)

This one requires a bit more of an explanation. 

As everything else, our existence is dialectical. It consists of conditional and unconditional sides that function alongside but separately from each other. 

On the conditional side of our existence, we have our relationship with an environment – our thoughts, feelings and actions, ups and downs, wins and losses, mistakes and achievements, proud moments and disappointments, criticism and reinforcement from other people, etc. On the unconditional side, we have our relationship with self. This relationship needs to be that of an entity, where “I am neither good nor bad.” When a child is born, it is neither good nor bad. Just a human being. An entity, like Sun, Earth, Moon, a tree, a river, a squirrel. Sun cannot be good or bad, it can burn my skin, but it does not make it bad. The same applies to humans. We are neither good nor bad, on a personal level. While on the level of a response, our reactions can indeed be good/bad, effective/ineffective, mistake/achievement, etc. 

To have a happy and productive life, we need to constantly maintain a dialectical balance, where one side is stable, and the other side is flexible (by the dialectical principle of complementarity). 

“I just am – neither good nor bad” (stable/unconditional side) AND my actions can be effective/ineffective, I can gain/lose, people like me/people don’t, I am happy/I am disappointed (flexible/conditional side).

Unfortunately, the information field in which we exist programs us to be one-sided in how we understand life and in how we navigate through it. The information field consists of all possible influences, such as mainstream society, culture, religion, books, internet, parents, siblings, extended family, friends, teachers, etc. This information field merges the conditional and unconditional sides of our existences, making everything conditional. “Who I am” starts to be predicated on “what I do and what other people think of me.” When a relationship with self becomes conditional on our relationship with the external environment (e.g., “I achieved, therefore I am good or I failed, therefore I am bad”), our existence becomes one-sided. Once a dialectical balance is disrupted, a person’s self-image starts to vacillate, depending on circumstances, between being positive and negative on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. This course is suffering. However, instead of learning how to separate the two sides of an existence, and create a synthesis of “I just am AND I can achieve/fail, I am happy/disappointed, people like me/people don’t like me), a person gets stuck in attempts to artificially reduce fluctuations of life via 1) avoidance of the challenges of daily living and/or 2) force, which includes attempts to change other people and/or punish self for “being bad.” 

Achieving a stance of “I just am”, allows us to attain peace with self, regardless of whether we are happy or disappointed about outcomes in our conditional side of life. Peace with self means – neither good nor bad. If I am treating myself as good, then there is no peace, as I can also be bad.

There are many reasons why our relationship with self may transition from unconditional to conditional. Unfortunately, it does not take much to start this malware programming. Simply saying “Great job, you are such a good girl!” or “You did this wrong, bad girl!” merges the relationship with self with achievements and failures. Further, harmful invalidation, specifically in early life, facilitates this transition to a significant degree. Harmful invalidation includes criticism, judgment, comparisons, shaming, blaming, insulting, forcing, imposing, etc. Harmful invalidation provides feedback on the level of a response AND on the personal level. It communicates that both – a response and the person – are “not good enough” and that the maladaptive response is proof that the person is “defective.” Thus, “who I am” starts to integrate with “what I do/feel/think.”

So, to decrease suffering, we need to 1) avoid avoidance and face challenges without running away from them or attempting to force others solve them for us (the conditional side of existence), and 2) learn how to separate “who I am” from “what I do” (the unconditional side of existence). 

Keeping the dialectical balance between and conditional and unconditional sides of our existence is specifically important for attaining an ability for non-attachment to outcome, that we have previously discussed. Obviously, if my relationship with self is dependent on an outcome, how can I possibly achieve this non-attachment stance? 

How to separate “who I am” from “what I do” is a journey of discovery that I hope you will take with me in further videos and in taking my courses.


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