Gabriel Mizrahi (@GabeMizrahi) joins us for this deep dive into three surprising ways to cope with suffering that we’ve learned during our recent period of massive change, stress, and uncertainty.
“All experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” -The Declaration of Independence
What We Discuss in This Deep Dive:
- The difference between suffering and pain.
- The three thoughts that make up the architecture of suffering.
- The phenomenon of meta-suffering.
- How much of the suffering we endure is actually under our control?
- The beliefs and mindsets we can adopt to manage suffering more effectively.
- And much more…
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For most of us, suffering isn’t really a binary thing. At least it doesn’t feel that way when we’re going through it. As much as we might wish it were, suffering isn’t like a light switch we can turn on and off, no matter how many self-help articles teach us “how to stop suffering,” or “ways to avoid suffering,” or “the one weird reason you can’t stop suffering!”
In this deep dive, we move beyond the usual tidbits and bromides that teach us how to deal with suffering and, we hope, give you useful and unexpected practicals that actually generate meaningful change. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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More About This Show
If you’ve been listening to our new show, you know that it’s been a very tumultuous and exciting adventure.
The show was born from a period of massive instability, which has taught us more about hard work, compassion, and the possibility of starting over than we ever thought we’d learn.
If you want to learn more about how to manage instability, we highly recommend checking out our last deep dive on the topic (that’s episode 4).
It’s also kicked up more challenges than we’ve had to deal with in a long time.
Every challenge is like a message from the world to your brain saying, “Time to worry. Time to freak out. Time to suffer!”
So we’ve been forced over the past few months to think more deeply about:
- Why we suffer.
- How we can get better at coping with suffering.
- Whether suffering is under our control — and how much.
- What beliefs and mindsets we can adopt to manage it more effectively.
That’s what we’ll be discussing in this deep dive — specifically, we’ll be talking about three surprising ways to cope with suffering that have been learned during this period of massive change, stress, and uncertainty.
1. Let Yourself Suffer
Three thoughts make up the “architecture” of suffering:
- I’m in pain / I’m suffering.
- I want to stop being in pain. I don’t want to suffer.
- How do I stop suffering?
But if you look a little closer, you’ll find that there’s actually another thought lurking behind all of them:
I shouldn’t be suffering in the first place.
Because if you think about it, there are really two layers to human suffering:
- There’s the suffering itself.
- And then there’s the suffering about your suffering, which depends on the thought that you shouldn’t be suffering!
If you take a hard look at what you’re going through at any given moment, I’d be willing to bet that a great deal of your suffering — maybe even most of it, in some cases all of it — is actually coming from that second layer.
- The thought that says you shouldn’t be experiencing what you’re experiencing.
- We could call that meta-suffering.
A Story from Jordan’s Life
For the last month or so, I felt all the stress and fear and anxiety of the transition super acutely. My professional world had been stripped away, my career was placed in jeopardy, and my identity as a broadcaster and coach — a massive part of my life — suddenly felt like an illusion.
All of that would have been more than enough suffering for me to work through, until I noticed that I was also carrying around this other burden:
- The thought that I shouldn’t be dealing with any of this to begin with!
- I wasn’t just suffering because of my professional circumstances. I was suffering because I was convinced that I shouldn’t have to.
Franz Kafka: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature,” he wrote, “but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”
Translation: You’re totally free to avoid pain. That’s a normal thing for a human being to do. But maybe trying so hard to avoid that pain is actually the one form of pain you don’t have to experience in the first place.
- When you find that pain arising, take a moment to unpack the bundle of thoughts behind that pain.
- Notice how this strange conflict — I’m suffering; I shouldn’t be suffering — is actually helping to create a lot of your suffering in the first place.
- Instead, drop that thought, and allow yourself to experience whatever pain seems to be arising.
- The pain might still be there, and it might still be very acute. But I’m willing to bet that it’s a lot less painful without the added pain arising from the belief that you shouldn’t be experiencing this pain at all.
- It seems counterintuitive. How can I avoid suffering by allowing myself to suffer? But it’s actually one of the most powerful ways to reduce suffering, by consciously avoiding that unnecessary meta-suffering under our control.
That’s how we can turn the brain’s peculiar wiring against itself to alleviate the layers of suffering it’s so good at creating.
2. Suffer at the Right Time
The brain has the unique ability to contemplate the past, present, and future.
- That ability to relive things that have already happened and imagine things that haven’t happened yet is a form of mental time travel.
- It’s an incredible faculty that allows us to learn from our mistakes in the past and anticipate challenges in the future, so that we can adapt, plan, and survive.
- Unfortunately, it’s also a really great way to suffer over things that haven’t even happened yet — and that’s where it gets us into trouble!
Because when we can experience a source of pain before it even happens, then we suffer in advance — and then we suffer again, when the source of that pain actually shows up.
- For many of us, that anticipated suffering is even more acute than the actual suffering when it arrives.
- Because worrying, if you really think about it, is always anticipatory — it’s always looking forward.
- That’s actually part of what makes those events so worrisome — the fact that they haven’t yet happened, but that we’re afraid they will.
- Which means that when we worry, we’re really worrying about a thought — a thought about the future!
- In other words, we’re not worrying about the actual thing we’re afraid will happen — the thing we think is going to bring us all this suffering — but the thought that that thing will happen.
- And when that thing does happen — if it happens at all — then we get to suffer twice.
- First by worrying that it’ll happen.
- And then again when it actually does happen.
A Story from Jordan’s Life
- Examples of worries that are all future-oriented:
- Meeting my audience goals.
- Hitting ad targets.
- Living up to the huge expectations my team and I have for our new show.
- But of course, what I’m really doing is projecting myself into the future — in my mind — and catastrophizing an outcome that hasn’t happened yet.
- And by doing that, I’m suffering right now, and setting myself up to suffer again in the future, if that imagined suffering ever turns out to be real — which it rarely does!
- When you notice yourself experiencing some form of suffering — big or small — ask yourself whether you’re suffering about something that is actually taking place, or about something that has yet to happen.
- Oftentimes, you’ll find that your suffering is largely focused on the future.
- In those cases, you’ve identified a form of suffering you’re free to give up whenever you’re ready — because until that future event actually plays out, you’re not obligated to obsess about it.
- Once you see this, you’ll realize that one of the best ways to avoid suffering is to commit to only suffering at the right time.
So when is the right time?
- When the source of your suffering — the event, person, decision or outcome — actually arrives, and not a moment sooner!
- Anything before that is just a thought in your head, and it’s a form of suffering you can easily avoid, as soon as you see it for what it is.
- The time to worry, of course, is when the object of our worry actually comes to pass. Then we can worry. If we have to. But when we do, we often find that our worry is nowhere to be found — because our suffering is now in the present, and will soon be in the past.
3. Focus on Sources over Symptoms
The Declaration of Independence includes a killer quote: “All experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Translation: We all know that people would rather cling to their unhappiness than to actually fix the things that are making them unhappy.
Because as we all know, we humans love to complain about the things that make us miserable. But the second we think about actually doing something about them, we often realize that we’d rather protect our grievances — our suffering — than do the hard work to really address them.
As long as that’s true, then we’re choosing — at least to some degree — to continue suffering.
- The final key to avoiding suffering at the end of the day: action.
- Take concrete steps to address, resolve, eliminate, and remove the underlying sources of our suffering rather than complaining about, rationalizing, or accepting the symptoms.
If I’ve learned anything these past few months, it’s that who we are — for real, deep down — is the person obscured by the various forms of suffering in our lives.
If we allow ourselves the room to suffer when we have to — without beating ourselves up for suffering in the first place, suffering before we really have to, or accepting the symptoms of our suffering as unavoidable — then we dramatically reduce the pain, stress, and anxiety that keep us from doing the one thing we all know we really should be doing: changing our circumstances, becoming better, and acting our way toward happier and healthier lives.
THANKS, GABRIEL MIZRAHI!
If you enjoyed this session with Gabriel Mizrahi, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- The Secret to Avoiding Suffering by Jordan Harbinger
- JHS 4: Deep Dive | Learning How to Cope with Instability
- JHS 6: Simon Sinek | What’s Your “Why” and Where Do You Find It?
- Michael Port
- Franz Kafka
- The Declaration of Independence
- The Bhagavad Gita
- Liam Neeson’s Taken Speech
- Freud on Sublimation, The School of Life
- Norman Pattiz
- The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath