Pain and suffering aren't the same. You can ease suffering by gently peeling back layers of worry, regret, complaint, and unhelpful story-telling to get to the pain inside.
Do you know the difference between pain and suffering? Do you know which one you'd choose?
When I think about the most painful experiences in my life—whether they involved physical pain or emotional pain—I notice something funny. The amount of hurt I felt at the time is not proportional to how much I shudder at the memory when I look back.
Let me give you some examples. There's no way any event caused more sheer, body-wracking pain than giving birth—I labored for 20 hours! But even in the toughest moments, I felt pride and excitement. The next most painful experience was breaking my ankle in the first month of college. But for the most part, that experience was humorous.
On the other hand, that time it was really cold when I was visiting Minnesota and my feet were freezing? That was a drag. And it’s no exaggeration to say that every time I get a mosquito bite, I rage and rail. Suffering galore!
The secret ingredient behind how much we suffer from painful experiences lies in the way we think about pain.
Judged by the level of pain alone, giving birth is a million times worse than a mosquito bite. Judged by duration, a broken ankle lasts much longer than cold feet. And yet, I didn't endure prolonged suffering with my most painful events. So, what governs the amount of suffering we experience?
For some hints into the difference between pain and suffering, we can look to the cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness underpinnings of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a treatment developed by Dr. Steven Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada and developer of Relational Frame Theory.
Spoiler—the secret ingredient behind how much we suffer from painful experiences lies in the way we think about pain. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.
What is pain?
Pain is very clean. It’s simply an unpleasant physical sensation—either mild (like an itchy elbow), extreme (like a broken bone), or somewhere in between.
Pain can also be an unpleasant, raw emotional experience. I emphasize “raw” because once a natural emotion has been processed, thinking about it or analyzing it too much gets into suffering territory. A raw emotion is an automatic and simple feeling, one that a first-grader could name—anger, sadness, fear, joy.
Pain is universal and unavoidable. Nobody can truly say they've led a completely painless existence.
What’s interesting about pain is that it’s universal and unavoidable. Nobody can truly say they've led a completely painless existence. Even people with the rare genetic condition of congenital insensitivity to pain can feel unpleasant emotions.
Pain is useful
And that’s because pain is useful. Physical pain tells us to avoid harmful things. That’s why you don’t have to mull over the idea before pulling your hand back from a hot stove—the pain makes your body recoil quickly. It also tells us to slow down when we push ourselves too hard. When your feet hurt from hiking for hours, you know you should take a break before you put too much stress on them and cause an injury.
Emotional pain is similarly helpful. It may seem counterintuitive, but sadness is actually crucial to our well-being. It tells us what's important to us. If, for example, we didn’t care about our family members, we wouldn’t be sad if they died. Sadness also signals to those around us that we need comfort and support, and in the other direction, gives us the basic foundation for empathy.
In summary, pain is:
- Necessary and unavoidable
- Clean and simple, even if unpleasant
- A “raw” experience that isn’t over-processed by thoughts
What is suffering?
Suffering, on the other hand, is much messier than pain. I like to think of it as something we wrap around pain like layers of gift wrap—you can pile it on, and it makes the original piece seem much bigger and more complicated, but it’s not necessary.
Here’s what suffering looks like in action:
- “Why is this fibromyalgia happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”
- “I always have the worst luck. This couldn’t be worse timing for breaking my arm!”
- “I hate this cramping so much. When will it ever end?”
- “These migraines are never going to go away. I can’t take it.”
- “How come I ended up with arthritis but my partner didn't? It’s not fair.”
- “If only my cousin hadn’t given me the flu, I wouldn’t feel so terrible.”
- “I’m young and healthy—I shouldn’t have back pain!”
What do you notice about these examples?
First, you may notice that they’re all thoughts—things you might say to yourself. We all talk to ourselves constantly, maybe not out loud, or even through an inner monologue, but our brains do use words to describe and understand the world, including our own experiences in it.
Second, you may notice that none of these thoughts are very accepting of the pain. When I say "accepting," I'm not describing giving up. Accepting means acknowledging that that pain is there and then simply allowing it to be.
Suffering cannot sit still. It wrestles with the pain, trying to deny it or bargain with it, judging it, condemning it, blaming it on someone, projecting it into the future, regretting it from the past.
This is the most crucial difference between pain and suffering—pain simply is; suffering cannot sit still. Instead, suffering wrestles with the pain, trying to deny it or bargain with it, judging it, condemning it, blaming it on someone, projecting into the future, regretting it from the past. By doing all this, suffering holds a magnifying glass up to your pain, not only making it bigger but making it the center of your experience.
Notice that none of the song and dance suffering does around your pain actually diminishes the pain. Just because you keep telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling this bad doesn’t mean you’ll feel better. In fact, "should" tends to make you feel worse because now you’ve added layers of frustration, confusion, and indignation—all unnecessary layers of gift wrap!—to the original piece of pain.
These complications apply to emotional pain and suffering, too. Do any of these sound familiar?
- “My stupid anxiety makes me so miserable. What’s wrong with me?”
- “What if I never get over this breakup? I can’t handle this.”
- “I’m weak for feeling like this. Other people have it even worse.”
- “I wasted all those years being a screw-up. It’s too late now.”
These thoughts take painful but clean emotions and turn them into nagging stories that weigh us down.
When you judge an emotion like fear—"What's wrong with me?"—what could be simple anxiety is now anxiety plus shame. Your judgment of your feelings creates an invisible sign you always wear around your neck that says: “I’m an anxious freak.”
When you judge sadness as a weakness, grief becomes grief plus guilt plus pressure to act happy even when happiness isn't an authentic emotion.
When you time travel, projecting heartbreak into the future, you're forced to carry your potential heartbreak plus all of its imaginary friends in the pit of your stomach.
No wonder suffering feels so much heavier than pain!
How to let go of suffering
At this point, it’s clear that suffering sucks. So how do we get rid of it?
1. Take a deep breath and let go of the idea that we can “get rid of” any experience we have
This is an unpopular recommendation with my patients. They (rightfully) wonder, “Isn’t the whole point of therapy to get rid of bad feelings?”
Our thoughts and emotions are real. We will never wrestle or hide them away, and the more we try, the harder they come back, clamoring for attention.
When was the last time you shooed pain away, or won a tug-of-war with anxiety, or banished sadness for good? Our thoughts and emotions are real. We will never wrestle or hide them away, and the more we try, the harder they come back, clamoring for attention.
So instead of trying to struggle against suffering, let’s first accept that you are suffering. Let go of the goal to get rid of suffering. Turn your attention to what’s wrapped up inside the suffering—the pain.
2. Fully experience the pain and sit with it nonjudgmentally
Allow yourself to fully experience the pain. Whether it’s physical or emotional, simply sit with the feeling without any distractions.
Let your mind explore the sensations and emotions with curiosity. If you find your mind judging the experience (“This is unfair! This is miserable! I hate this!”), that’s okay. Take a breath and gently get back to the “clean” experience of the original piece of pain—feel what it feels like, see where it is, watch it ebb and flow.
Of course, if you are acutely injured or ill, get yourself medical attention! You can deal with the difference between pain and suffering later.
The point of this exercise is not to pretend that the pain feels good or is meaningless. Listen to what your body needs—it might be an ambulance, or it might be a change in position or a moment of nonjudgmental stillness.
3. Recognize the stories your mind tells you about the pain
While you are sitting with your pain, or even while you are going about your day, you’ll probably notice your mind telling you stories about the pain:
- “My life has just been one big disappointment since I dropped out of college.”
- “There’s nothing I can do about getting laid off, so why even bother?”
- “I have to keep my anxiety under control or I’ll fall apart.”
- “Nobody wants to be with someone who's depressed.”
In each of these examples, you can insert almost any unpleasant experience, sensation, or emotion. Notice how these stories make the pain the center of your identity as if it determines who you are and what your life means.
Catch these stories as your brain tells them to you, and then call them out for what they are. They’re simply stories, and you don’t necessarily have to believe them, spend time with them, or follow their lead.
4. Get back to allowing the pain
Now that you’ve caught your brain telling you these stories, you don’t have to feel bad about them or get rid of them. Remember, there’s no way to get rid of your painful experiences—it’s enough to have noticed them. Once you have, gently turn your attention back to the pure, original pain and spend a little more time with it. Breathe into it and say, “It’s okay that you’re there. I accept you.”
The point isn’t to avoid pain—pain is unavoidable. The point is to notice and let go of suffering.
Doing this will not get rid of your pain. Don’t be disappointed if you try these steps and your bruised knee hurts even more, or your heart feels even more broken about a loss. The point isn’t to avoid pain—pain is unavoidable. The point is to notice and let go of suffering.
In other words, it’s time to gently peel back the layers of worry, regret, indignation, complaint, and unhelpful story-telling, and get to the simple, clean pain inside. There, you will find truth and clarity.