Psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” He was describing the process by which we develop dysfunctional behaviors as a way to avoid emotional pain, yet seem to wind up in far more torment and confusion than when we originally started. Instead of solving one problem we often simply add another. The true problem is one of unrealistic expectations; that a life well-lived can somehow be accomplished without difficulty or discomfort.
The primary driver for seeking counseling is often the relief of suffering. People are often quite surprised when I tell them that what I believe we should focus on, at least initially, is not suffering less, but learning how to suffer smarter. Sometimes the only way out of our pain is through, and the “through” is an obstacle course that can only be navigated with discipline, accountability, and the willingness to experience pain. It goes against human nature to move towards what hurts, so instead of taking responsibility for our problems we avoid and compound them with a myriad of actions that only send us backwards.
I often use a medical analogy when describing the process. Surgery hurts, often terribly, medications can have side effects, yet the treatment may be necessary to ensure our health. The same holds true for dealing with life’s problems. Sometimes the solution itself is quite painful (such as leaving a deeply unhappy marriage and building a new life), yet such action results in emotional health and fulfillment on the other side.
In my view it’s so much easier to wrap our head around a solution to physical pain. It’s more concrete. The doctor can outline for us exactly what the procedure will entail and the average recovery time. I can’t offer that level of reassurance to my clients no matter how desperately I want to. All I can do is help them to map out a construct of steps, and assist them with understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and the risks. I can offer different perspectives and the barriers to anticipate. I provide unwavering support and new skills to cope. But the one thing I simply cannot do is assure them that they can go through this process without experiencing any pain.
I am often humbled by our human frailty, yet astounded by our tremendous capacity for resiliency. It is truly breathtaking to watch. Most of our problems, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, do have solutions. I don’t believe that a contented life is a privilege reserved for only a lucky few. It’s something that we must purposely build, piece by piece, with the conviction of responsibility and the willingness to suffer for the right reasons.