A Few Thoughts about Suffering

Peace from Anxiety
An excerpt from Peace from Anxiety

As you can see from the discussion of trauma, suffering comes in many flavors. It can be rooted in personal, interpersonal, or systemic issues. Some suffering is inevitable—things like death, illness, and loss touch everyone in their lifetime. Some of us are protected from certain kinds of suffering, while others face a disproportionate amount of it. In this chapter I’m going to invite you to step back a bit and reflect on your relationship with suffering—your own suffering and the suffering of others. Cultivating a meaningful relationship with suffering is central to working with anxiety. One of the ways we can define anxiety is “a fear of fear.” Our fear of facing our suffering can end up making us more anxious than the suffering itself!

Being with Suffering

Being in a conscious relationship with suffering is necessary if we want to be whole and at peace. As Brené Brown says, “Because we have lost our ability to feel pain and discomfort we have transformed it into anger and hate.”¹ When this is directed outward, the world feels like our enemy. When this anger is directed inward, we become our own worst enemy. If we want to heal, we have to feel the source of our suffering, not the pain associated with denying it. Lanie’s story is a good example of this.

Lanie struggled with an eating disorder her whole life. When she came to me at age fifty, she was still in a cycle of dieting and binging that had begun at age eight. For the first few months of therapy, it was hard for me to get her to talk about anything other than food plans and exercise regimes. She had such a deep hatred of her body, and her whole existence was oriented around her cruel inner voice that constantly told her that she was disgusting. She knew that as a young girl she’d used food to mask her feelings of grief over the death of her father. Her mother and sister had died while Lanie was in her twenties, and this had taken her eating disorder to a new level. Through some deep work in therapy exploring what was beneath the eating disorder, Lanie realized that not only did she use food to numb her grief, but also her grief had been transformed into self-hate, and that fueled her behavior. As painful as it was to struggle with her weight and self-esteem, on some level this was easier than dealing with her grief. Only when she finally let herself feel her grief was she able to find the compassion for herself to feel that she deserved to live and be happy. Her preoccupation with food and her weight was a distraction from the deeper issues that she was avoiding.


What are your conscious or subconscious beliefs about suffering? What were you taught about suffering in your family of origin? It’s okay if your answers seem irrational or unreasonable.

Suffering as Growth

Right now, I am raising a middle schooler. I don’t know about you, but middle school was one of the toughest times of my life. I know very few people who have fond memories of sixth grade. It’s a tumultuous time socially, hormonally, and academically. Adolescence is when we are faced with the discomfort of these changes in our body and mind. This is our transition from childhood to adulthood, and even when kids have all the support they need, it can feel chaotic and hard. If we weren’t faced with trauma prior to adolescence, this can be the first time we face significant suffering. In some ways, how we deal with adolescence can influence how we deal with change and suffering as adults.

Many adolescents tend to blame the outside world for their discomfort. This is a bit of a hallmark of that stage. My sixth-grade son is no exception. He is in a phase of being unhappy with everything. Rather than being with his pain, most of the time he is convinced that the world is a horrible place designed by adults to keep him miserable using tactics like homework, video game limits, bedtimes, and vegetables. He is often angry and frustrated, feeling like things never go his way.

In quiet moments together, usually at the end of the day when he’s in bed and I come to say goodnight, he’ll acknowledge the depths of his pain and admit that it’s not caused by anything outside of him. In his case, things are fine, and he wants for nothing. He knows he is privileged and has his basic material needs met as well as loving people around him. He knows his unhappiness cannot be eradicated with unlimited video game time and desserts. When he gets vulnerable in this way, I do my best to listen and simply bear witness to his experience without trying to fix it right away. I try to sit with him in his suffering to show him that he doesn’t have to run away from it.

In some ways, how we deal with adolescence can influence how we deal with change and suffering as adults.

Sometimes I’ll offer him tools for how to be with his intense emotions. Things like noticing how the emotion feels in his body and using breath or grounding to not get overwhelmed. I remind him he can write in his journal or reach out to a friend or me or his dad. Sometimes he takes it in, but right now he mostly rolls his eyes and tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about. (It takes everything in me not to defensively say to him, “I’m an expert in this stuff! I’m literally writing a book about it!”) I know that it took me a lifetime to learn about suffering, and I’m still learning. I spent the first half of my life trying to avoid suffering, and only in the second half of my life am I understanding the wisdom of being with it. I can’t make my children avoid what I think is unnecessary anxiety and pain by pushing these ideas onto them. That would be ironic! As much as I’d like that, I know that they’ll need to be bumped around by life and learn the lessons in their due time. As parents, being able to be with our children’s suffering with patience and compassion (even if what is bothering them seems unreasonable) can be one way we help them navigate the layers of their own pain and help them see that their suffering can be a doorway into deeper self-knowledge and even freedom.

Finding the Wisdom in Our Suffering

Find a comfortable position, take a few moments to get grounded, and connect with your breath. When you’re ready, think about your relationship with suffering. Notice how it feels in your body to think about suffering in general, and, if you feel grounded enough, stay with it for a moment. Then imagine that you could turn this feeling into a person, animal, or any type of creature. What does it look like? What does it say to you? What does it want you to know? What does it need from you? Let your imagination flow here as you imagine a dialogue with this wise creature.

Moving Through, Not Around

In The Book of Joy, which is a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the authors write: “Suffering is inevitable . . . but how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.”² These wise men feel that we always have a choice, even in the most extreme situations. Both men are known for their compassion and levelheadedness in the face of crisis, and both have a lightness and sense of humor that is unexpected given the atrocities they have experienced and witnessed. In this poignant book, they talk about being with suffering as a doorway to empathy as well as a reminder that we’re not alone in our suffering. It is through their acceptance of suffering that they have been able to find hope and even joy.

This is not what we are taught in mainstream Western culture (and many other cultures). Many of us are taught to deny and avoid our pain at any cost. Consumer culture tells us to buy things to make us happy and aspirational marketing has us striving for superficial goals like being thin, wealthy, or popular. We are taught to value appearing happy rather than actually being happy. We often hide our suffering from each other. This perpetuates our isolation and false belief that everyone else is okay and faring better than us. As the saying goes, “What you resist persists.” We’ve got to face our suffering head-on, so that we can transform it, move through it, or be able to be with it without adding to it with our resistance.

Surfing offers an interesting metaphor for this. When I was taking my first surfing lesson on Venice Beach, the instructor explained to me that when I’m paddling out, if a set of waves starts to roll in, I should turn the nose of my board into the waves rather than trying to avoid them. He explained that if I try to avoid the waves they will pummel me to the bottom, but if I meet them with the nose of my board I can surf through them and get to the other side. That all made sense, but when the moment came, my fear had me paddling away from the giant wave coming toward me. I knew in my head I should meet it, but my body automatically had me frantically trying to avoid the powerful force heading my way. Inevitably I’d end up thrown off my board and pushed to the bottom of the sea. I’d come up gasping for air and worried that my board was going to hit me in the head. Finally, after being beaten by the waves many times, I stayed to face the next one. It felt counterintuitive and, although I didn’t realize it then, I actually used my resourcing tools of breathing and grounding through my board to be able to not run away. This time, I moved toward the wave. And guess what? I went through it! And it flowed over me without much drama. It was quite empowering and made surfing a much more fun activity.

We’ve got to face our suffering head-on, so that we can transform it, move through it, or be able to be with it without adding to it with our resistance.

I had another chance to learn this lesson while giving birth to my second son. After laboring for several hours, it came time to push and I hit what is called “transition.” This is often the point where people think that maybe they can’t push the baby out because it’s too hard. For me, transition felt like a hot fire that was going to rip me in half. My midwife was instructing me to push as hard as I could. The pain was so intense, and, to try to manage it, I started visualizing holding my baby and being on the other side of the pain. But each time I did that, the baby would start to move back up the birth canal. You see, I was trying to bypass the pain, and each time I did, I got further away from my goal. Finally, my midwife looked at me very matter-of-factly and said, “I need you to go here,” and she pointed to the ring of fire. “If you don’t, the baby’s health could be compromised!” I knew in that moment I needed to do what I teach others to do. I had to move toward the intensity, toward what felt like could be death. On the other side would be my baby in my arms, but I couldn’t skip over the process. At that moment, I bore down as hard as I could and pushed right into the pain. It was scary, but I knew there was no choice. A few minutes later Marley was born. I wish I could say that my first thought was about my beautiful baby, but it wasn’t; it was, “Thank God that’s over!” I was exhausted! Then my body started shaking. I knew it was discharging the trauma of the birth, so I let myself shake and release for a while. Then I was able to feel gratitude for my baby, and for myself for all my hard work!


What life experiences have you had that have taught you that suffering can be transformed into meaningful growth? What experiences have you had of resisting suffering and inadvertently creating more? What situations or experiences are currently present for you that may be opportunities to stay with discomfort rather than avoiding it?


  1. Krista Tippet, On Being, podcast, January 2020.
  2. Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (New York: Avery, 2016), 7.


Related Books

Peace from Anxiety

$17.95 - Paperback

By: Hala Khouri

Zen in the Age of Anxiety

$16.95 - Paperback

By: Tim Burkett

Healing through the Dark Emotions

$24.95 - Paperback

By: Miriam Greenspan


$16.95 - Paperback

By: Radhule Weininger

Hala Khouri

Hala Khouri, MA, is a therapist, yoga teacher, and somatic experiencing practitioner. One of the founders of Off the Mat and Into the World, she teaches workshops on resilience, anxiety, trauma, and social justice nationally.