Imagine for a moment that suffering is like a sandwich. Some painful things are inevitable, unavoidable and outside of our control – such as the pain caused by other people’s actions and extraordinary events that occur. This is the bread in our suffering sandwich – after all, its just not a sandwich without the bread.
However, there are other parts of suffering that we are empowered to influence – namely, our own thoughts, feelings and actions. This is the filling of our Suffering Sandwich. We can pile our fillings on thick and high, like a Dagwood, in order to make our suffering sandwich really hard to manage and overwhelming. Or, we can limit the toppings so that our suffering consists mainly of the things that are outside our control. In this way, the suffering remains bite-sized and more manageable – maybe like a grilled cheese.
In life, pain is unavoidable. At the very least, most of us will experience the pain of birth, illness, old age and death. Some of us are confronted with additional painful events and situations that are outside of our control such as natural disasters, accidents, extreme poverty, or cruel or insensitive treatment by others. However, we tend to heap additional layers of suffering on top of these unavoidable painful events in the form of thoughts and behaviors which create afflictive emotions.
For example, when I work with clients who are struggling in destructive relationships, I find that one common response to their partner’s cruelty is to self-blame and try harder, which results in feelings of guilt and remaining stuck. The other partner’s actions are the bread in the Suffering Sandwich. This (often along with additional environmental factors) is outside of my client’s control. But the self-blaming thoughts, guilty feelings, and misguided actions serve only to grow the suffering to Dagwood-like proportions.
Fortunately, we can all learn to limit the controllable factors that contribute to suffering. With practice, we can learn to identify and relate differently to the thoughts that lead to afflictive emotions. We can make space to consider our inner experiences and choose responses that are more skillful and adaptive.
If you suspect you are contributing to your own suffering and you aren’t sure how to make a change, it may be time to consult a psychologist. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. I maintain a local referral site at kansascitymentalhealth.com.