Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

In our culture we are taught that if we’re unhappy or angry that it is a result of another person or event. We often blame our girlfriend for making us angry or the traffic for making us stressed. You forget that there is a step between what happens in the outside world and how we feel about those things. In between those two elements are your thoughts and beliefs. Our thoughts and beliefs tell us how to feel about what has happened in the outside world.

Albert Ellis, an American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in 1955, would explain it like this. You’re walking through the park and you step in dog poop, you might think:

  • “Oh man, I am such an idiot. Why did I do that? I never do anything right!”
  • “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me. Now I need to go home and change my shoes and I’m going to be late for work and they’re going to fire me and then I’ll lose my apartment and have to move back in with my mother…”
  • “I can’t believe some careless dog owner left this dog poop here for me to step in. Nobody does anything right anymore. Why didn’t the parks department clean this up? People are such screw ups.”


You could think. “Oh, well it kinda of sucks that I stepped in poop but it’s ok. I’m going to clean off my shoe and move on with my day. I wish it hadn’t of happened but in the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal.”

Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

Although bad things will inevitably happen to you, you get to choose how those things make you feel. Your thoughts and beliefs interpret the world around you and can make you feel good or bad, it’s up to you.

When you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or angry, you might want to write down your feelings and examine why you feel that way. Do your thoughts fall into one of the following categories?

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: You see things only in black and white. For example, either your girlfriend is a perfect angel or she’s a horrible daemon. There’s no in-between.
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a few negative events as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You use one example to reflect on everyone else. For example, my last girlfriend was crazy, all women are crazy, I’ll never trust anyone again.
  3. Romancing the Past: You focus on an ideal perception of something that happened in the past and use that to determine how bad the present is. For example, my vacation to Mexico rocked, this vacation sucks. (You may be forgetting minor things that went wrong in Mexico 5 years ago.)
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting that they “don’t count” and you maintain your negative beliefs. For example, Even though my boss told me my last project was really successful, that doesn’t mean I’m good at what I do.
  5. Catastrophizing: You make a negative assumption about something that will go horrendously wrong in the future without concrete evidence. For example, I just know this first date is going to be difficult, so I’m going to drink too much, and then throw up on my date, and she’s never going to talk to me again.
  6. Martyrdom: You feel that others are not giving you the recognition or special treatment you deserve. For example, I work so hard but they never give me the promotion I deserve.
  7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions define how things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” For example, I feel like my life is never going to get any better. I feel like no one will ever love me.
  8. Personalization: You assume that you are the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible. You take other people’s attitudes and actions personally. For example, She never called me back after our first date, I must be a loser.
  9. “Should” Statements: You believe that people should behave in a certain way. These beliefs were likely impressed upon you by others and you may want to question their value. For example, I should be in better shape. I should be straight.
  10. “I Need” Statements: You tell yourself you need someone or something outside yourself to make you whole and complete. For example, I need a girlfriend to be happy. I need to be rich to find a hot girlfriend.

These feelings are not invalid. This is just a reminder to examine your feelings more closely for mistakes. If these feelings are common or making you feel sad, depressed, or angry it might be a good time to talk to a trusted friend or therapist.

These notes were taken from a lecture with Damon L. Jacobs, a licensed marriage family therapist in New York City. You can buy his book or contact him about sessions at

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