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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Is mental illness glamorous?

Apparently there is nothing romantic about mental illness. Which is odd because the internet is awash with dark pictures depicting distress and impassioned quotes. Tumblr especially has a large collection of pro-self harm and thinspiration imagery. Does finding beauty in pain make it more acceptable? What is the function of strongly identifying with being depressed, mad or terrified?

A culture that admires and reveres mental illness has developed over the last decade on social media and like most sub-cultures it exists on a spectrum. On the severe end self harm is encouraged and eating disorders are idolised within a culture of competition. To take your own life is a way of becoming forever recognised as a suffering being.

What does denying the romanticism that some people see in suffering do to the debate around ‘glamorising mental illness’?

The backlash against this glamorisation appears to involve stating firmly that it is neither attractive or trendy and that it needs to stop. These articles inevitably go on to talk about what mental illness ‘actually is’:

“It is not cool or romantic. It is waking up crying because you are alive another day. It is feeling as if you have no purpose on Earth. It is the blanket of pain at 3 a.m. and the thoughts of suicide that are screaming in your mind.”

This feels rather simplistic and patronising and appears to be missing the crucial point; that some people find meaning and validation in suffering. As a society we are often told to ‘man up’ or’get on with it’. Not functioning well enough in a career or in a relationship is often judged as weak. From a young age children can be told ‘don’t cry, you don’t need to be upset’. Does this lack of validation about the suffering we experience, both from within the family and within wider culture encourage some to create emotionally-charged material that is popular with others?  Perhaps if someone is feeling stigmatised then romanticising what they are experiencing makes it more bearable.

Glamorising pain obviously has a downside, it can encourage vulnerable people to sink into further troubles and take up coping mechanisms like self harm that are often not advantageous. But to intervene and have a conversation about this we need to recognise the reasons behind the allure and fascination of suffering.