There is a paradox involved in human suffering. The more we attempt to avoid emotional pain the more likely we are to experience it. I become personally concerned when patients enter my office with a goal of “being happy.” It’s a trap… and here is why. First, in life we inevitably face hardship and suffering. Obviously, the intensity of emotional pain can range on a continuum. From minor emotional injuries, such as feeling excluded, to the intense grief of a significant loss. However, when we refuse to experience and face our pain we are unable to develop the skills required to tolerate life’s inevitable suffering. When we have a goal of “being happy” we are not accepting of all the other emotions that are integral to the human experience. Within our pain we are able to create personal meaning, learn valuable lessons, and develop core values to which we choose to live our life. When we avoid suffering we hand over a large degree of control to our emotions and they will eventually control us. Our emotions have a way of working their way back into our lives no matter how hard we attempt to avoid them. They may take the form of panic attacks, you may feel irritable and depressed “for no apparent reason”, and you may be engaging in unhealthy behaviors to escape distress. This idea of “experiential avoidance”- or attempts made at avoiding pain and suffering- is of great interest to clinical psychologists. Experiential avoidance (EA) has been broadly defined as attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences—even when doing so creates harm in the long-run. It is associated with substance abuse, eating disorders, pathological gambling, internet addiction, excessive worry, over-exercise, depression, anxiety disorders and PTSD… to name a few. So what happens when your ultimate goal is “to just be happy?” For one, you begin to negatively evaluate any other emotion, as if that emotion is wrong or pathological. The initial response is to avoid that experience- and the long term consequences of avoidance directly impact your ability to tolerate distress. Minor challenges become overwhelming. Paradoxically, those who face suffering understand that emotions are temporary and learn to accept this as part of the human experience. Within acceptance comes tolerance. The more we face the distress the less intense the emotional experience. In the long run we gain perspective and understand how experiencing the pain of life also enhances the joyful experiences.
About The Author
Dr. Roger K. McFillin is a Licensed Psychologist in Pennsylvania and Co-founder/Executive Director of the Center for Integrated Behavioral Health. Dr. McFillin has extensive experience and expertise in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. He is Board Certified in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology and a Diplomate of the renowned academy of […]