Addicted to Suffering? The 5 Mental Habits of Needless Pain and Struggle
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
A few days back I woke up feeling awful. I struggled with the nauseating feeling for a few minutes before I asked myself: Why am I feeling this way?
I stayed in bed diving into the dark corners of my mind looking for reasons and excuses. I couldn’t come up with one single reason why I was feeling this bad.
Then, out of nowhere, it hit me: I’m addicted to suffering.
Suffering is an addictive negative attitude that creeps up on us and builds momentum over time, till it takes over. For me, this unease is familiar. It’s my default feeling, unless I’m really excited about something.
The mental pattern is so deeply ingrained that it turns into negative emotions before I become aware of it. It goes something like this: I’m awake, I feel anxious.
As I got out of bed, I started noticing the inner dialogue of dreading almost everything. Interestingly, the dread goes away once I start doing something, regardless of whether I enjoy the activity or not. If it’s something I enjoy, I get lost in it. If it’s something I’m not particularity too keen on, I experience some resistance and frustration, but I handle the feelings way better than gut-twisting anxiety.
How about you? Do you ever wake up feeling miserable (anxious, overwhelmed, nervous, angry, or sad) for no reason? Or do you experience a vague sense of unease throughout the day that saps your energy and motivation?
If you have any deep negative thoughts and feelings that lead to unnecessary suffering, and keep you stuck in a vicious cycle of self-inflected misery, look within and see if any of the following apply to you.
Top 5 thought patterns that cause useless suffering
There are many beliefs and attitudes that cause us to suffer. The following are the main mental processes that I’ve experienced and believe are the leading reasons behind addictive suffering.
As you know, negativity breeds more negativity and empowers the same thoughts and feelings that shape our reality. So look at all of the following as a cycle that snowballs over time, till it controls our lives.
1. Focus on lack and not enough
No matter what you do, you feel it’s not enough. You do one good thing, and instead of relaxing into the feelings of accomplishment, you mentally jump into all the things that you haven’t done, and should be doing.
This bias towards lack keeps us in a state of dissatisfaction. We long for the distant dreams, without giving ourselves credit for how far we’ve come. We agonize over all the missed opportunities, and ignore the experiences and growth opportunities that continue to enrich our lives.
When we’re never happy with our own success, we start begrudging others their success. This creates more suffering through negative feelings of jealousy and resentment. Or we fail to see the value in their contribution and sink into cynicism.
And when we focus on what’s missing, we find more of the same, and compound the suffering.
2. Distorted perception of time
When we don’t feel we have enough time (stemming from an overall lack mentality), we act in one of two ways:
Rush: We zoom through action as fast as we can, all in the name of efficiency. In our attempt to win the race against the clock, we stress, we make mistakes, and, more importantly, we don’t enjoy what we’re doing. And we add more pain to an already excruciating day.
Procrastinate: On the opposite side of rushing is procrastination. Why bother with anything when I know there isn’t enough time to get it done? Might as well distract myself with something less painful.
We waver between rushed anxious action and lethargic apathy—not a healthy way to live.
3. Inability to relax, or have fun, without feeling guilty
There is always a sense of I should be doing more. So we take on more and pile on the overwhelm. Then we feel we can’t afford to take time off.
When we take a break, we feel guilty. We have so much to do, and not enough time. And we beat ourselves up.
The rest of the time we refuse to yield to mental and physical exhaustion. Instead of relaxing, we force action and then drop it because it’s too consuming. Anything that remains incomplete lingers in the mind and creates more stress.
And if we can’t bring ourselves to take action, we escape and numb. We confuse avoidance with relaxation. Except escaping is short-lived and perpetuates the same cycle of resistance and suffering.
4. Obsession with the pain of the past
No one goes through life unscathed by heartbreak, disappointment, and at least a few major failures and countless minor mistakes. There is nothing wrong with revisiting the past to learn from it, or if a situation arises that brings up painful memories. But when it’s a constant noise running in the background of the mind, it only means one thing: a choice to suffer for no reason.
We relive the past in nostalgia over what was that ended, or yearning for what could’ve been that never happened. And when that’s not enough, we recall, and magnify, every wrong we ever committed and torture ourselves with regret and guilt.
We allow the pain and loss to define who we are—an unlovable, or unaccomplished failure. We all know that this is not true—no event, or person, can diminish the core value of your being. Yet we believe our minds.
To make things worse, if we remain stuck in the painful past, we won’t be able to appreciate the amazing things that are happening right now. We ignore the people who love us, and what we’ve achieved. We project our suffering onto the people who love us, and we dismiss all of life’s efforts to support us.
5. Overwhelming confusion
Confusion is synonymous with lack of clarity and direction. It can also be a sign of lack of trust—in our own ability, or life’s willingness to help us.
Haunted by painful failures, feeling we don’t have enough time or abilities, we feed the beast of doubt. We stumble in the darkness of confusion, without a way out. This is where suffering becomes the norm—a general sense of unease about anything and everything.
One can say confusion can be a good thing; we get to try new things. This might be true, if we’re exploring from a place of trust, and not scarcity and fear.
When deeply embedded into our belief system, the above mental habits turn into emotional dread and anxiety before we can even blink. But don’t be discouraged by the power of negative beliefs.
Like every habit and belief, we’re the ones who allowed such thoughts to take hold. And that may not be a bad thing. If we added something to our mind, we can definitely add something more helpful and less painful to override old patterns.
The first step in any change is awareness. If you feel you’re suffering, I hope you get a chance to notice the underlying mental habits that cause you needless suffering. Once you know what’s holding you back, you can reclaim your power to make a different choice.
In the next article, we’ll go over a few simple ways to transform the habits of suffering.