This post in part of an ongoing series called Connection Point. Featuring content written by the professors and licensed counseling professionals in our graduate counseling program, these posts are designed to inform and encourage our readers as they strive for total health—mind, body and soul.
It seems the Western world is unswerving in its goal to produce universal happiness and eliminate suffering. We’re continuously bombarded with media messages diagnosing causes and promising solutions. Media-savvy advertisers, well-meaning bloggers and everyday social media users alike seem to connect with our collective pain.
Can’t sleep? Sleeping disorder.
Fear of public speaking? Anxiety disorder.
Socially awkward? Feeling sad? Ate too many potato chips? Disorder, disorder, disorder.
Despite the myriad of creature comforts at our fingertips, suffering plagues us. We escape for a day or two, but no matter the insulation strategy, nothing ensures freedom from suffering. Unwittingly, the very innovations that promise hyper-happiness and über-connection wound us instead—perhaps even deepening our collective isolation. So, here comes yet another solution! We need a paradigm shift in our thinking. It starts by remembering, “To err is human….” Suffering is normal. More than that, it’s beautiful and heroic.
Consider the night Jesus was betrayed: Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matt. 26:36-38)
Three times, Jesus left his followers to pray, each time returning and finding them asleep. Picking up in Matthew 25:45, Jesus said to the disciples: “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Matt. 26:45-46)
Jesus did not pathologize his emotional suffering; instead, He experienced it. He named his pain—“sorrow to the point of death”—then he rose to meet the suffering, saying, “Let us go!”
Time and time again, research has shown us the human tendency to avoid rather than accept suffering. As Blackledge and Hayes (2001) pointed out, though, “Attempts at experiential avoidance often serve to actually increase the frequency or intensity of the avoided thoughts and feelings” (p. 245). Blackledge and Hayes offer an alternative—acceptance. “Acceptance involves…an active process of feeling feelings as feelings (e.g., experiencing emotions simply as constellations of physical sensations, urges…that have no intrinsic power to harm us or hold us back), thinking thoughts as thoughts (and not prescriptive realities), remembering memories as memories (and not descriptions of the present), and so on, and still behaving effectively…The goal of healthy living is not so much to feel good, but rather to feel good and to live good” (p. 247).
Emotions, including the painful ones, are a gift—intended for our personal and collective good. Emotions provide critical information about ourselves in relation to the world. Experiencing emotions, naming emotions, and moving toward emotions—that’s good.
James Schut, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Graduate Counseling, Trevecca Nazarene University
Dr. Schut received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University in 2000 and has conducted research on mental health services for children and the prevention of substance abuse and suicide. He received his master’s in marriage and family therapy in 2014 and has a private practice in Brentwood, Tenn.
Excerpts quoted from: Blackledge, J. T., & Hayes, S. C. (2001). Emotion regulation in acceptance and commitment therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57, 243-255.
This article originally appeared in Nashville Christian Family Magazine.