Thriving through the Embrace of Life:
To Thrive or to Suffer
By Lauren Helm, M.A.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style” ― Maya Angelou
If you were to ask yourself, “Am I thriving in life?” what would your honest answer be? Is there a palpable fullness, or a vibrant, colorful aliveness that paints the story of your life? There are as many different ways to thrive as there are individuals on the planet, and each person likely has a unique story to tell about what thriving means to them. What does thriving mean to you? You may not have a ready answer, but perhaps you have a general sense of what the experience is like when you are living a life that is full, satisfying, and meaningful to you. Is the experience of moving forward in life in a deeply satisfying way your current reality? Or do you only catch glimpses or taste brief moments of thriving, without being able to maintain this as a steady flow? These are challenging and potentially uncomfortable questions to ask yourself. It may seem that living a truly vital life is without reach, where it is possible for others to attain it, but you cannot.
“Pain is universal, suffering is optional.”
If you experience a regular sense of enlivenment, this is excellent. The chances are, however, that life has peaks, and it has its valleys too. In our society, we may often misconstrue what it means to live fully and thrive. Often we equate successful living with happiness. If we feel pain, we assume that something is wrong, and we must immediately fix the situation in order to feel happy again. Unfortunately, pain simply is going to be experienced throughout our lives. It will occur, again and again, in various domains, including our relationships, career, and other life experiences. We will experience psychological pain (i.e. painful thoughts and emotions) and physical pain (e.g. back pain or migraines). Does this mean that we will never be able to truly thrive, or live a deeply rewarding life? Certainly not! Pain, in and of itself, is just that – the experience of discomfort (in its many forms). Though it may not sound pleasant, pain is not the problem. Rather, our reactions or responses to the pain, is what leads to suffering. Suffering is pain’s more dramatic and pervasive cousin – suffering often wrenches, grips, and gnaws at us—and typically stems from our efforts to move away from our pain. It draws in all of our attention and sucks away all of our vital energy or life force. Generally speaking, to suffer is not to thrive.
It is within our nature to attempt to avoid, escape, or prevent pain. As a species, this is how we survived and persevered. However, in our modern day society, we are rarely threatened by actual physically dangerous situations that we need to remove ourselves from to survive (e.g. if you see a rattlesnake, you turn and walk the other way instead of stepping onto it to avoid the painful bite which may also lead to physical damage). Many painful experiences that we currently face are internal experiences – the worried thought that your boss is negatively evaluating you, the anxiety in the pit of your stomach when the bills are difficult to pay, or the sadness that results from the loss of a friendship. Often, the mind reacts to these painful events in more or less the same way that it would react to a painful physical experience (such as stubbing a toe) – avoid this pain, and get rid of it right away, or else survival is threatened! Unfortunately, as our minds get to work at problem-solving how to control and get rid of a painful thought or a painful emotion, it often unsuspectingly steps onto the path of suffering.
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream.” – Paulo Coelho
As the mind begins to systematically focus more and more time, attention, and energy to ridding itself of painful thoughts and emotions (like anxiety, sadness, guilt, anger, etc.) a paradoxical effect occurs – it begins to feed the beast. The very labeling of an emotion or a thought as “bad” creates a spiraling effect of distress. For example, if you experience anxiety, and then believe that it is a bad or harmful thing to experience anxiety (i.e. it is threatening), then you will likely feel an increase in anxiety or distress (because now you are anxious about anxiety), and also begin to do whatever you can to get rid of this threat (the escalating anxiety). You may try to control it by distracting yourself with drugs or alcohol, or perhaps you try to control it by avoiding whatever triggers the anxiety in the first place (e.g., not going to a party for fear of being disliked). Though this may reduce anxiety in the short-term and you may experience some brief sense of relief, the anxiety is unlikely to permanently disappear. In fact, it is guaranteed to reappear and your mind will likely respond to the reappearance of anxiety in a similar way, becoming like a rat on a wheel, running with all of its will and might to escape the relentless pursuit of anxiety (or any other uncomfortable thought or emotion). Thus, suffering grows, as more and more time and energy is needed to escape growing discomfort that returns again and again. Most importantly, the more attention is spent on avoiding, the less it is spent engaged in areas of life that may be important to you. “Life” can be put on hold while you invest your energy in “managing” the pain of life. Sometimes, in more minor cases, this works. But often, it can become a bottomless pit, and we can lose our way. To merely survive does not mean to thrive.
Though many of us would rather not fully acknowledge that this process occurs in our lives, it often characterizes the human condition. However, with awareness and recognition, we can begin to consciously alter how we respond, and thus begin to craft a way of living that supports thriving and fullness.
Part 2: Thriving through the Embrace of Life: Learning to Open through the Pain is the second segment of our blog which continues the discussion of thriving versus suffering, and introduces an alternative approach to responding to emotional or physical pain or discomfort.
If you'd like to speak with someone at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management for help learning about how to thrive and relieve psychological suffering, please click here.
Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your demons: an overview of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12(4), 70.
Tags: anxiety, cognitive behavioral thearpy, anxiety therapy san diego, anxiety therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, worry, ACT, Center for Stress and Anxiety Management,therapy in san diego, emotion regulation, anxiety disorders, values, steven hayes, CSAM, meaning, fulfillment, mindful, suffering, thriving