Here’s a distinction I find useful: Pain versus Suffering.
Pain is the experience of discomfort.
Suffering is the deep and abiding agony we feel due to the stories we believe about our experiences of pain.
If someone steps on your toe, that’s pain. If your entire day is ruined because you interpret the incident as proof that everyone is out to get you, that’s suffering.
If your lover betrays you or has a change of heart, that’s pain (at least for most of us). If you feel hopeless because your situation convinces you that people can’t be trusted, that’s suffering.
Pain is inevitable and involuntary.
At some point in your life, someone or something will hurt you. Moreover, this will be a reoccurring theme. It’s going to happen at every stage of your life until you die.
Suffering is negotiable.
Sometimes you’ll react to your pain in a self-defeating way. Sometimes you’ll take things personally when they’re not. Sometimes you’ll buy into dramatic narratives that simply aren’t true. We all do this from time to time. But what separates these moments from pain is that we can gradually get better at challenging our own assumptions, playing around with different perspectives, and telling ourselves healthier stories about the pain we experience. The ability to do this is the essence of psychological freedom.
Here’s the thing about dealing with problems: you’re going to have problems no matter how you spin it. There’s no escape from the frailty and vulnerability of the human condition. Having problems, however, is not the problem. The problem is when we believe a story that tells us that something is wrong with us when we have problems. It’s the notion that problems are some sort of punishment from the universe rather than just a sheer fact of life.
When you have problems, don’t double your troubles by reacting to your problems as if it’s a problem to have problems. Accept the unpredictable and unalterable aspects of life and do the best that you can to tell yourself stories that empower you to move forward.
Suffering is a problem, but problems don’t have to make us suffer.