Enjoy your suffering?

A man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering

George Gurdjieff

Enjoyment of pain is still taboo. Rarely do we hear about what is satisfying about depression, eating disorders, anxiety, etc. Conversations about mental health have only recently become an acceptable topic, we can’t start talking about how we sometimes enjoy our symptoms can we. Yet at times there is a perverse enjoyment in suffering, an enjoyment that if recognised can be used to transform the suffering itself. What is this satisfaction in dissatisfaction?

Symptoms which are nevertheless so little satisfying in themselves”  (Seminar VI, 1959.)

Note “little”, there is not an argument to be made that people love being mentally ill and feeling anxiety is great, etc.

Symptoms serve a function and this function will be unique to the individual. Identifying as “depressed” or “mentally ill” can be a good way of creating meaning in life, not only in finding a place in the world, but also to join a community of others and be able to be involved in something bigger than ourselves. When work and hobbies and home life are all severely impacted by mental distress it can become all-consuming, there can be a sense of “what would be left of me without my illness?”

Worry/obsessions and compulsions are known ways for people to cope with the impact of trauma. OCD takes up a lot of time, effort and thinking space, it’s an excellent way to avoid the more distressing memories of traumatic events. Avoidance strategies, while distressing in themselves are often preferable to experiencing what is being covered up. If I’m terrified of going outside then the impact on my life of staying indoors may not be enough to force me out of the door to face my fears.

Eating disorders can create a sense of control, they can also be used as a way to appear fragile and in need of care. If a child doesn’t experience care and comfort then as an adult they may go about finding this care in a round-a-bout way. In our individualistic culture where self-sufficiency and independence are praised, asking to be looked after is often a shameful thing to want, let alone ask for. Whereas if you’re painfully thin you are showing your pain to the world in quite a socially acceptable way.

Some feel that they deserve to suffer, they have done, said or thought something terrible, even if they do not know what it is and they deserve to be punished:

The satisfaction of this unconscious sense of guilt is perhaps the most powerful bastion in the subject’s (usually composite) gain from illness–in the sum of forces which struggle against his recovery and refuse to surrender his state of illness. The suffering entailed by neuroses is precisely the factor that makes them valuable to the masochistic trend. It is instructive, too, to find, contrary to all theory and expectation, that a neurosis which has defied every therapeutic effort may vanish if the subject becomes involved in the misery of an unhappy marriage, or loses all his money, or develops a dangerous organic disease. In such instances one form of suffering has been replaced by another; and we see that all that mattered was that it should be possible to maintain a certain amount of suffering“. Freud, (1924)

So what happens when therapy attempts to take away these symptoms, often from someone who is vehemently declaring they want to get rid of them? Clinicians often talk about being people not being ready to change, or not being motivated to engage in therapy. Why would you want to work hard to let go of something that is working for you on some level?

If we want to transform the way we suffer asking ‘what is this doing for me?’ is a good start. The more time we spend complaining about how terrible everything is without recognising our investment in our symptoms the less chance we have of breaking free of them.

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41 thoughts on “Enjoy your suffering?

  1. Hi. Outstanding post. I have a question/request. May I please quote a chunk of this post in a post of my own? I have felt the truth of it in my own experience, and it inspires me to express myself on the topic. Here is what I would like to quote: **Identifying as “depressed” or “mentally ill” can be a good way of creating meaning in life, not only in finding a place in the world, but also to join a community of others and be able to be involved in something bigger than ourselves. When work and hobbies and home life are all severely impacted by mental distress it can become all-consuming, there can be a sense of “what would be left of me without my illness?”**

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  2. Often it is the case that individuals seek help when the compensatory gains of their underlying illness breakdown. In acute episodes when this happens, once you have ‘stabilized the ship’ and you are able to resume ‘enjoying’ your symptom the temptation is continue as business as usual and lose the chance to make a substantive change. Linking this to you more recent post, often the underlying cause that is avoided refers to historical situation that ossifies and that one is psychologically mortgaged to, which zaps energy what could otherwise be put to better use.

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  3. Hey! Interesting article. I’m a little confused. Are you saying that enjoying the mini things our suffering gives us is a way to cope? Or that recognizing what we enjoy from our suffering is necessary to seek change?

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  4. I still don’t get why I am stuck in this vicious circle. I want to be happy yet I don’t want to let the sad feelings go. I get tired of being happy after a while. But when I’m sad it hurts so much I don’t want to feel that way anymore 😦

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  5. This is the best post I have read on WordPress in a while. I am glad I found your channel! It is awesome that someone else appreciates Freud/Lacan/psychoanalysis!

    I have never viewed mental illness in this light per se. But it reminds me of Nietzsche’s remark that we are neurotic animals , and Freud’s claim that civilization imposes neurotic symptoms on us – so we are really just discussing a matter of degree with the DSM.

    I am planning to do a piece on Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” , and how human life is not simply about sex, or money, but as you hinted at: a crisis of meaning.

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  6. I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoy having good days. 😊 But I will allow myself to accept and review my vulnerabilities on days where I feel like I’m a mess. I know that it’s difficult for everyone to be dialectic about their situations, but it’s a breath of fresh air for me being able to pin point learned behaviors. I genuinely don’t enjoy suffering, but I do recognize because of the suffering I’ve had to endure, it allows me to have that empathy toward others. I am totally passing this article on. 😊

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  7. At times there is a stange enjoyment in suffering and pain, and the pain itself can become a way in which to feel in control. If one accepts that pain is the normal state of affairs, the the sudden absence of pain can be distressing and disorienting. I have direct experience of this. For almost all of my life I suffered intense emotional distress over the unresolved death of my maternal grandmother, the woman who most cared for me. Now that I’ve uncovered that hidden problem, all kinds and layers of guilt, anger, sorrow, loss and distress are coming to the surface. Luckily I was more than ready to change, I just didn’t realise how painful change could be.

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  8. I’m awfully invested in this, both I and my husband have been told if we tried harder we could snap out of it. But on the other hand I have 2 daughters that are so scared of independence that they subconsciously sabotage every attempt to help them. A lot of professionals fall either on the blame or no reason extremes. Nice to talk to you!

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  9. I agree with you as long as its accepted that the individual rarely deliberately seeks out their illness. Although the subconscious may seek and perpetuate the symptoms the individual rarely consciously chooses this. It is important to recognise that there is some benefits for the patient; for instance being treated for agoraphobia your reward for going out is ultimately to go out lot more. So I agree it is something for clinicians and patients alike to consider, what are the benefits and how might the same benefit be achieved in a healthier way. 🙂

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