I don’t like the word “suffering” because it sounds too severe. However, it’s an incredibly accurate word to describe the pain we feel in life. And we experience some form of suffering every day. We feel it in three forms: pain, change, and expectations.
Pain, in this case, means all sorts of pain. Physical pain, of course, but also mental pain. Undesirable experiences. Being in an uncomfortable situation. If you were to walk into a room and give a speech in front of a hundred strangers, that’s quite an undesirable experience and you’d feel some mental pain. If on the way out to the podium you stubbed your toe, that’s physical pain. Pain is pain and it causes us suffering.
Suffering change comes about from the fact that nothing lasts forever. Assume you just started a new job, and love the people you work with. Every day you’re excited to solve problems and get things done with these people. However, one day somebody leaves the team and it throws the dynamic off. then another person leaves. Suddenly, it’s not as good anymore. When you get what you want and suddenly can’t hold onto it anymore, that’s the suffering of change. The richest person in the world won’t be able to hold onto their money forever.
Lastly, and the main focus of what I want to talk about, the suffering of expectations. It’s the hardest to recognize, but holds the most insight to ourselves and to the way things actually are. This is the kind of pain in our lives that sits on us like a weight, gradually getting heavier. It’s the pain where, even when we’re having a good time, still hang around because we’re expecting something a little different. After a breakup, when you’re sad, and you get frustrated at yourself for being sad after weeks. That’s the pain of expectation. When you’re in a room full of people you like having a good time, but you feel sad, anxious, or out of place, and you don’t like that; that’s the pain of expectation.
The pain of expectation is background. It’s our feelings about our feelings. It’s our expectations of a moment being dashed. It’s pervasive and ever-present, especially in our modern lives. It simply is the hardest to recognize because it’s a subtle out-of-place feeling. And unfortunately for all of us, it causes the most pain. It’s the pain that makes us postpone feeling our feelings. We’ve all had those times. You’re angry at something but you just don’t feel the anger. Or maybe you’re sad; sad about losing someone special in your life but you just ignore the pain and try to go out and have fun, but when you come home at the end of the night and you’re still sad, you go to sleep only to wake up and still feel sad, so you keep kicking that sadness down the line. You’re expecting it to go away but it just won’t. And it’s so easy to spot when you know what to look for.
Look for the shoulds and the supposed tos.
I should feel happy, I’m out with all my friends. Boom, right there. There’s your expectation. You’re not feeling the joy of your friendships because your sadness is ahead in the queue. You need to feel your feelings, good or bad.
Imagine your emotional processing center of your brain as a checkout window at the DMV. The longer you postpone feeling your feelings, the longer that queue gets. The faster you serve the next customer (by dealing with your feelings and experiencing them), the faster that queue moves. Keep that queue short. What’s interesting is that postponing feelings make the feelings seem worse than they are. Feeling your feelings and just letting them happen takes less time than you’d think. They may take days, or weeks, but once they’re gone, they’re gone.
When we get caught up in feeling things about our feelings, we forget that we’re setting up expectations for ourselves. Having these expectations are what causes this pain. The anticipation is always greater than the moment, and when our experiences don’t align with our expectations, there’s friction. That friction causes suffering.
So what can we do about all this?
First of all, examine the language you use when you talk or think about these things. If you’re saying “I shouldn’t feel sad” or “I should feel happy” or “It’s supposed to be this way”, then you need to make a change in your language. Change should to could. Should implies right and wrong. Should implies that there is a specific path that the events of the world should follow. In reality, there is no set path for anything. Things just are. Events just are. Feelings just are. Could, on the other hand, implies possibility. It’s not concrete, it’s a place to aspire to be.
To use an example, if you’re in a relationship, and you find yourself thinking “We should be closer to each other,” you’re telling yourself that the state of your relationship is wrong. It’s subtle, but strong enough to shift the dynamic of your relationship. If you instead think to yourself “We could be closer to each other” then you’re introducing possibility and a sense of optimism, and you’re more likely to act on it than if you look at the situation from a negative standpoint. People innately want to feel good so when you turn a bad situation into a good one by switching words around, it changes everything.
Another way to handle the suffering we feel from our own expectations is by actively examining our thoughts. It’s a theme I come back to all the time: mindfulness and meditation are key to living a better life. It’s human to want to avoid bad, uncomfortable feelings. But if you sit down and spend time with them, examining them, you gain an understanding of the things behind those feelings and circumstances. When you know what’s behind the mask, it no longer becomes scary. It becomes easier to deal with. Knowing why you react a certain way or have a certain feeling, you’re able to remove the root of the problem. You’re able to free yourself from its hold on you, ultimately leading you to a better life.
Again, change the shoulds to coulds, feel your feelings and let them run their course, and examine your feelings and the feelings about those feelings.