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Is Suffering Optional? Part 1

Updated: Jan 20

I recently came across an author with a pretty bold statement about the root cause of all forms of personal suffering:

All of your distress is self-generated. To be more precise, all your distress in the forms of anxiety, disappointment, stress, anger, shame, guilt – all the unpleasant stuff that makes up your suffering – is generated by (your negative thinking). Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence, p 71

So, all personal distress is generated by a purely internal source? By our own negative thoughts?

My first reaction was to disagree with this statement, thinking of those who have lost loved ones and going through the natural grief process of finding one’s new normal. Then there are those who lose their jobs or even limbs. These external events cause very real feelings of distress, whether financial or physical.

Shirzad went on to provide two caveats to his bold statement:

There are two small caveats…the first is in the instance of grieving as a way of honoring the loss of something or someone, which is a healthy process. Second…a few brief seconds of feeling anger, disappointment, guilt, or shame are fine as immediate reactions to events. This is a similar feeling to when you touch a hot stove…(however) if you don’t shift your mind, it is like keeping your hand on the hot stove and continuing to feel the pain that was only initially useful. Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence, p 72

Shirzad validates that it’s natural and normal to grieve loss. And, it’s normal to have an initial negative reaction to other types of loss or unexpected circumstances.

Beyond that, we choose how to respond ongoing. We get to choose happiness or distress. We can choose suffering, but it’s optional. It’s still our choice.

Shirzad’s position centers around these key points:

  1. We each have an inner “Judge.” The Judge is only capable of reacting. The Judge’s fuel is anxiety, disappointment, frustration, shame, blame and guilt, all of which the Judge uses to trigger our immediate, initial reactions.

  2. Initially, we see the Judge as helpful, especially when it helps us avoid uncomfortable situations. The problem is that the Judge only has tunnel vision. So, we can only see things from the Judge’s very narrow perspective. Over time, the Judge’s reactive nature can keep us stuck in distress – in patterns of unhealthy thinking – since we are being filled with the Judge’s negative fuel. We keep reacting…and reacting…and we stay stuck. This perpetuates our feelings of personal distress.

  3. We also have an inner “Sage.” The Sage is capable of “moving you forward one positive step at a time, regardless of what life throws at you” (Positive Intelligence, p 75). The Sage is able to accept what is, rather than denying, rejecting, or resenting reality. The Sage’s fuel is empathy, inspiration, a deep longing to create, a desire to contribute, and an urge to finding meaning even in the greatest crises (p.75).

  4. When faced with personal crisis, the Judge will be the first to the scene. We will have our initial reaction as our way of initially trying to protect ourselves against pain or discomfort.

  5. The Judge means well, but doesn’t realize when it’s no longer helping. If we continue to let the Judge react, it’s like us keeping our hand on the hot stove. We become more and more uncomfortable and distressed.

  6. We can always choose the positive, freeing fuel of our inner Sage to help overcome the negative fuel coming from our inner Judge. Our Sage can guide us toward healing and hope, if we intentionally choose.

  7. We have the power within, and we always have a choice.

Same Theme, Multiple Sources

It’s one thing to hear one author share his insights that the root cause of our personal distress, which comes down to which of our internal thoughts we choose to believe.

It’s another to see these same concepts come up again and again from completely different authors. The reoccurring ideas become a theme.

In this post and the next, I’ll recap key points from three additional authors who appear to agree with the idea that suffering is optional.

Please note that I have no affiliation with any of the four authors. I just like to read – a lot – and the themes couldn’t be ignored. That’s why I want to share them with you all and see what you all think! If suffering truly is optional, how could our lives be different by making better choices?

The remainder of this post will highlight Cy Wakeman, founder of Reality-Based Leadership, and author of multiple books including Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace.

The next post will feature:

  1. John G. Miller, founder of QBQ, The Question Behind the Question, and author of several books related to applying the QBQ techniques in various areas of life and work.

  2. Byron Katie, founder of The Work and author of multiple books including Question Your Thinking, Change The World, and Who Would You Be Without Your Story?

Once you’ve had a chance to consider these additional points of view, I’d love to hear yours. What did you agree with? Disagree with? How does it play out in your personal experiences? Is suffering really optional?

Cy Wakeman

This author’s focus is specific to employees at work, though the concepts of choosing suffering or personal peace are front-and-center.

In her book, The Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace: Know What Boosts Your Value, Kills Your Chances, and Will Make You Happier, Wakeman offers her insights of what separates workplace happiness from distress, based on her research of high performers in the workplace:

I went on to study the two types of high performers: the happy high performer, who reports feeling content and stress-free at work while producing top results, and the unhappy high-performer, who delivers good results but is riddled with stress, full of complaints, and generally dissatisfied. The (happy high performers) had in common the core belief that they each made an impact on their circumstances and could choose their own course – in short, they were highly accountable. They seemed immune to factors that completely derailed others, like change and uncertainty, indifferent or ambivalent leadership, and unpredictability… It became clear that their success was not due to superior job opportunities, great bosses, coworkers, or luck. Their companies didn’t necessarily give them the tools they needed to do their jobs or anything extra in the way of support. Their attitudes were what set them apart. The Reality Based Rules of the Workplace, p. 6

Wakeman continues:

You’ll spend a minimum of two thousand hours at work this year. You can spend that time feeling insecure, resentful, and at the mercy of the ever-changing circumstances beyond your control. Or you can feel peaceful, free, and in charge of your own success. I urge you to embrace reality, choose freedom, and own your future like never before. Many of us spend our lives wishing that, for once, it would be “all about me,” when the reality is that it really is all about you, but not exactly in the way you might have hoped…you will no longer be able to see yourself as an innocent victim of your circumstances but as their co-creator – a participant, whether active or passive, in everything that is happening in your world. If you want happiness…in your life, (the book will show you) how to claim it. Reality Based Rules of the Workplace, p. 13

Wakeman’s version of Shirzad’s Judge is what she calls Emotional Expensiveness. Those with high levels of Emotional Expensiveness:

  1. Frequently share their opinions regarding others’ decisions and behaviors, believing they are entitled to do so.

  2. Need frequent encouragement to stick with a difficult task.

  3. Tend not to be happy until their work is praised by someone else.

  4. React to feedback with defensiveness or dismissiveness.

  5. Spend as much time talking about their employer and colleagues as they do talking to them.

  6. Only support what they were consulted on.

  7. Are passive-aggressive.

In the above list, you can sense the Judge’s fuel of anxiety, disappointment, frustration, shame, blame and guilt, all of which are used to trigger immediate – and negative – reactions.

While each of the reactions above may have helped initially avoid uncomfortable situations, is won’t result in a positive long-term solution. Those in Emotional Expensiveness can only see one perspective – their own – and their negativity perpetuates feelings of personal distress.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wakeman described those with High Personal Accountability (what Shirzad would call the Sage) as those who:

  1. Get reflective. They seek to confidently answer the question, “Would I be the top candidate for my job if interviewed for it today?” They seek to develop in areas where they fear they are falling behind, turning their internal insecurity into fuel for growth.

  2. Get beyond the baseline. They find ways to use the tools available to them for maximum impact, instead of asking for more tools. They would pay out-of-pocket for development opportunities that would positively impact their growth, seeing it as a personal investment they could take with them if needed.

  3. Get challenged. Recognizing that complacency is a choice that increases distress in a world of change, they proactively seek out learning beyond the required training.

  4. Get connected. Technology is our new normal. They choose to lean in and learn vs. resist. Resistance takes longer and creates more distress.

  5. Get multi-generational. Regardless of which generation they are in, they choose to stop judging the two or three other generations working alongside them. They take initiative to learn more about each person as an individual, rather than a stereotype of their generational label. Those in older generations choose not to subscribe to the notion that “dues must be paid” by younger generations.

Wakeman summarizes her research and insights into these five Reality-Based Rules to Live By (p.12):

  1. Your level of accountability determines your level of happiness. Don’t hope to be lucky. Choose to be happy.

  2. Suffering is optional. Ditch the drama.

  3. Buy-in is not optional. Your action, not your opinion, add value.

  4. Say “yes” to what’s next. Change is opportunity.

  5. You will always have extenuating circumstances. Succeed anyway.

My take

From my perspective, both authors would seem to agree that:

  1. In times of distress, our Judge – also known as resistance – will always arrive first on the scene. It’s our immediate reaction that’s trying to protect us. It will also keep us stuck/distressed if don’t recognize what’s happening.

  2. Staying stuck perpetuates personal distress.

  3. Staying stuck is a choice. There is always a path forward. We all have the ability to choose.

  4. Positive action is a key step in moving forward, whether it be learning a new skill, getting a new perspective, accepting reality, or finding meaning from difficulty.

  5. Accepting reality and moving into freedom isn’t easy or quick; it’s hard.

  6. We always have the choice to react or take deliberate steps toward peace and freedom.

One quote in particular summed up what I took away from both authors:

Stress is your wake-up call that you need to adjust your thinking and question your beliefs. Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace, p. 12

As you may have read in the About the Author page, I’ve been stuck.

And as I reflect back on those experiences, it’s true that my thinking about my situation played a key role in me staying stuck. Most of the time, I could only hear the Judge’s voice, which created a lot of distress. When asking for input, I see that I only asked those who agreed with me. This reinforced my tunnel-vision perspective. And it kept me stuck.

When I was readywhen the pain of staying the same was greater than the pain of change – I committed to taking small, positive steps forward. These actions helped me gain new skills and perspectives, and resulted in me experiencing not only personal growth but also personal peace.

That’s when my initial transformation began, and it continues to this day.

Read For Yourself

For those wanting more information about the two authors above, check out these related resources:

By Cy Wakeman:

By Shirzad Chamine:

  1. Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours

  2. The Positive Intelligence website

  3. Take the Saboteurs assessment to see which “Judges” trigger you most often. Naming your Judges helps recognize where they may be keeping you stuck/distressed.

Post 2 will showcase two additional authors’ insights. But I’d really love to hear yours. What did you agree with? Disagree with? How does it play out in your personal experiences? Is suffering really optional?


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