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Is Suffering Optional? Part 2

Updated: Jan 20

When you hear the word “suffering,” it’s likely that none of what comes to mind is positive. It’s more likely associated with pain. Maybe you feel like you’re suffering right now.

Suffering: the conscious endurance of pain or distress. Merriam-Webster online dictionary

Conscious implies the sufferer is aware of their suffering.

Endurance implies the sufferer’s ability to remain firm without yielding.

If a suffering person is consciously aware of their pain or distress, and also able to remain firm without yielding, could emotional suffering be an intentional choice leading to more stress/distress? Could emotional suffering be optional?

This post, and the first post of this series, suggest the answer to that question is, yes.

In the Part 1 post, Shirzad Chamine (Positive Intelligence), and Cy Wakeman (Reality Based Rules of the Workplace) shared similar perspectives on the source of personal and emotional suffering; that it comes from our own negative thoughts.

Our brain believes what we think. This can help us or hurt us. When we’re suffering, our brains are working against us to consciously endure pain and distress. Once we recognize how our brains and thoughts are working against us, we can make a different choice…toward peace and joy.

Same Theme, Multiple Sources

It’s one thing to hear from two authors who share similar insights.

It’s another to see these same concepts come up again and again from completely different authors. The ideas become a theme worth considering. Especially if it leads to decreased personal suffering.

Next, we’ll look at two additional authors and their perspectives on the source of personal emotional suffering:

  1. Byron Katie, Who Would You Be Without Your Story?

  2. John C. Miller, QBQ! The Question Behind the Question

Who Would You Be Without Your Story?

Byron Kathleen Reid (referred to as Katie) was, by all appearance, succeeding at life. She was married, living comfortably in California, had a successful real estate business and three children. Then…

…she was overcome by a depression that lasted more than ten years. She kept to her bed in deepening rage and despair. Eventually she committed herself to a shelter for women with eating disorders – the only place that would take her health insurance. One day she woke up in her attic room to find that all her suffering was gone, replaced by a joy that was unlike anything she had ever known. ‘I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I have found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.’ Byron Katie, “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?”

So much is packed into these two paragraphs. Let’s break it down.

First, “she was overcome by a depression that lasted more than ten years.”

In researching Katie’s story further, I learned that she reportedly suffered from depression, agoraphobia, overeating, and addiction to codeine and alcohol during this period. She would stay in bed for weeks at a time, not brushing her teeth or hair, and not changing her clothes during that time.

She admittedly suffered emotionally – “she kept to her bed in deepening rage and despair.” In YouTube videos, Katie transparently talks about throwing things at her children, who she believed weren’t meeting her needs, and yelling at her husband for the same reasons, all from her bed. She knew she was difficult to be around, yet desperately craved freedom from the pain of her emotional distress.

How, then, did she go from not being able to leave her bed to a place of intense joy and freedom that continues to this day?

Introducing… The Work

What was revealed to her, on the floor of an attic, was what has since come to be called, “The Work.” The Work consists of four questions:

  1. Is it true?

  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?

  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Through reflection, the questions train the brain to consider different perspectives.

The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates

To demonstrate how The Work works, let’s apply it to the belief:

“My family doesn’t meet my needs.”

That’s a pretty strong statement with a lot of emotion tied to it. Let’s explore the journey from a stressful stronghold to getting a glimpse of emotional freedom.

  1. “My family doesn’t meet my needs.” Is it true? Yes! They don’t love me, they don’t support me, they are always leaving me alone – yes, it’s true.

  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? It feels true. I mean, they tell me they love me, but if they really loved me they would be there for me. So I still think it’s true, yes.

  3. How do you react when you believe that thought? I get so angry, upset, and frustrated! How dare they treat me like this? It feels so awful to be so unappreciated.

  4. So when you have the thought, “My family doesn’t meet my needs,” you feel angry, upset, and frustrated. Hopeless. Yes, that’s right. Ok, so keep that thought, and now I’ll ask you to consider this thought, “My family does meet my needs.” How does having that thought make you feel? I would feel… lighter. Less…heavy. Less overwhelmed. Supported. That would feel good. So the difference between you experiencing strong negative emotions and emotionally lighter emotions is the story you’re telling yourself. When you choose to believe your negative thoughts, you suffer. You observe things that fit your story, then you feel justified in believing it. If you adopted a new story, you would start finding things that fit that story, which could be even more true. And, you said you would feel lighter and less overwhelmed. I’m not asking you to give up your current belief. The choice is always yours. I’m just asking you to answer the question, “Who would you be without your [negative] story?

This simple but powerful reflection tool brought Katie to this point of enlightenment:

I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I have found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always. Byron Katie

Freedom of Choice (and Joy)

When Katie conducts live workshops, she gently guides individuals through the process using their own personal examples. When she gets to question #4, where the person can visualize what they would be without the thought that is keeping them stuck, you see them physically change. Shoulders relax, faces visibly lighten, and some exhale deeply, as if experiencing joy for the first time in a long time. In some cases, they visibly appear younger.

They have allowed themselves to visually see a more positive possibility, along with the benefits, and they are now tasting freedom from emotional distress.

What I find most interesting is that Katie has no psychology degree or professional experience in the mental health fields (for which she’s received a fair amount of criticism.) What she has is a personal, profound, experience from suffering (for over ten years) to emotional freedom, which she continues to experience today. I’m offering her perspective; you get to decide if it’s a helpful perspective for you.

Now compare Katie’s model to that of this fourth author, John Miller. Watch for the similarities.

QBQ! The Question Behind The Question

John Miller is the author of the QBQ! (The Question Behind the Question) book series aimed at helping individuals and organizations master personal accountability.

What’s so important about mastering personal accountability?

The benefit people enjoy the most…is a personal one. One they start to practice QBQ thinking, things just seem to go better. People have more fun. Life is simply more satisfying and enjoyable for those who choose the way of personal accountability. John Miller, QBQ! p. 4

Who would benefit most from mastering QBQ thinking? Those who ask questions such as:

  1. When will this department do its job? (And do it right?)

  2. Why don’t they communicate better?

  3. Who dropped the ball?

  4. Why do we have to go through all this change?

  5. When is someone going to train me?

  6. Who’s going to give us a clear vision?

  7. Why don’t I ever get a break?

  8. Why don’t people care as much as I do?

  9. Why me?

Stress as a Choice

As you read that list of questions just now, did you notice how they made you feel? Did you start to take on feelings of tightness, anger, hopelessness? If so, you are not alone.

You are recognizing the power of words to create emotions. In this case, stressful emotions come from asking the “lousy, unanswerable questions.”

When we ask questions like this, we position ourselves as a victim. From the victim mindset, we don’t feel that we have any control over our circumstances. Everything is done to us. This feels very helpless and hopeless. We can also feel very justified in this position as it keeps us from having to change, grow, and learn. It’s what also keeps us stressed.

(For more details on the victim mindset and learned helplessness, check out this post.)

Choosing Personal Accountability

How does one avoid the victim trap and step into a life that is fun, more enjoyable, and satisfying? Miller asserts it’s through asking, and answering, accountable questions. Accountable questions are those leading to personal growth and progress.

Taking a few examples from his book:

Asking accountable questions is the path of progress, which, while it may feel uncertain, feels better than being stuck. The next positive step is to follow through with the answer to your accountable question. That’s the power of integrity and personal accountability, which leads to more fun, satisfaction, and enjoyment.

In the QBQ! book, Miller offers specific lousy questions (and the corresponding accountable questions) for the following topics:

  1. Customer Service

  2. Sales

  3. Manufacturing

  4. Management/Executives/Employees

  5. Marketing

  6. Teachers/Students

  7. Parents/Teenagers

  8. Spouses/Partners

  9. Neighbors

  10. Volunteers

It’s a quick read that packs a powerful (accountable) punch of perspective.

My Take

The purpose of this series was to offer four different perspectives to the question:

Is (personal, emotional) suffering optional?  

This is not a topic I approach lightly. Depression is a serious issue in our culture today and those in its grip need compassion, time, and support.

Why I felt compelled to write on this topic at all is because I have had self-inflicted emotional suffering caused by my own stinkin’ thinkin’. What this looked like for me was:

  1. Blaming others instead of owning what I could control

  2. Only seeking the perspectives of others who agreed with me, so I could feel justified in not having to change or grow

  3. Overreacting to small things as I wasn’t dealing with my real emotions in a healthy way

  4. Believing I wasn’t worthy or “enough”

  5. Feeling like I had to control everyone and everything

  6. Asking “why” questions (that turned out to be lousy, unanswerable questions)

As you may have read in the About Me post, I had achieved professional and personal success, yet I wasn’t fulfilled. I was mostly empty and emotionally stuck. It felt heavy. I was tired, reactive, high-strung and generally angry, yet I just kept doing what I had always done. Because that’s all I knew to do.

My awakening? When the pain of staying the same was greater than the pain of change. I didn’t like who I had become inside and was willing to admit I needed new perspectives. What did others know that I didn’t? What was the big secret to contentment?

As I read the books above and others and talked with others who could give me new perspectives, the emotional fog began to lift. I realized how my thinking was keeping me stuck and distressed. As I tried on new beliefs and became more open to more perspectives, joy and peace returned. I became much more compassionate to myself and others. And I’m still a go-getter.

I now want to pass along what I’ve learned to others ready to take the next courageous step on their journey. We’re better together.

Ready for your next step?

I’d welcome an opportunity to offer new perspectives. It’s not work meant to be done alone.

Schedule a free, 30-minute consultation to determine the right amount of support for you.


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