Sometimes life sucks.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
Or is there?
It’s inevitable that we will run in to testing times at some point in life, whether that’s in health, relationships, work, finances, or something else.
These cause us pain, but they can also cause us suffering.
These might sound like the same thing, but mindfulness separates them out and shows that they are actually two separate things, which leads to the conclusion that
You can experience pain without having to suffer because of it
Mindfulness distinguishes between primary pain and secondary suffering:
The primary pain is the actual event or illness or whatever it might be that has happened, or is happening, that we cannot change and is outside of our control.
The secondary suffering is our reaction to the primary pain – the thoughts and feelings that come, and continue to come, sometimes long after the source of the primary pain has gone away.
As bad as the primary pain might be, the secondary suffering (how we respond to it) can escalate things to a whole new level and has the potential to cause far more devastating and far-reaching effects than any primary pain the world can throw at us.
In the context of my own situation, I certainly recognise this to be true. You would think that dealing with continuous migraines would be enough to cope with, but my mind seems determined to complicate matters by adding in all sorts of thoughts and feelings in to the mix:
Will I never be well again???
Am I dying???
How will I cope with…???
Once I learnt about primary pain and secondary suffering, I was able to start to separate them out a bit.
Now when a bad migraine starts I can use mindfulness techniques to focus my attention on breathing and the actual sensations of pain in the present moment instead of the thoughts in my head, which I can save for another time when I’m in a better place to look at them.
It frees me up to deal with just one thing at a time and means I don’t get so overwhelmed that I have a major meltdown on top of the migraine itself. At least that’s the theory – some days it works better than others!
Secondary suffering – the ravenous beast
Secondary suffering is like a ravenous beast – it will eat everything we feed it and never get full.
It feeds on thoughts – here are some of its favourites:
*Catastrophising – imaging that THE VERY WORST is going to happen
*Mind-reading – assuming we know what someone else is thinking or feeling
*Fortune-telling – predicting what will happen in the future, or if I do X, etc
*Critical self-talk – our internal bully that never takes a day off, very kind to everyone else but for some unknown reason has developed quite different standards for ourselves
*Unreal ideal – making unfair comparisons between ourselves and other people
*Label maker – generalising one incident and turning it into a fixed characteristic, e.g. I lost a game so I am a loser, I made a mistake so I am a bad person, etc
*Guilty conscience – taking responsibility/blaming ourselves for things that are outside of our control
I know I sometimes treat the Secondary Suffering beast like it’s feeding time at the zoo, and I know it doesn’t bring me any benefits at all.
Life gives us enough Primary Pain, without adding Secondary Suffering into the mix as well!
Primary Pain & Secondary Suffering
There are some things you can change and some things you can’t.
What we can’t change is the primary pain – the actual event or illness, etc.
What we can change is our response to it – which can develop into secondary suffering if we’re not careful.
The next time you experience pain or stress, take a moment to step back and observe your thoughts and feelings from a slight distance. What is the primary pain or issue and what is the secondary suffering your mind is creating in response to it?
Every time you notice it, you can congratulate yourself on becoming a little bit more ‘mindfully aware’.
Want to know more about mindfulness in general? See Mindful Mondays – An Introduction
This is so helpful for me at the moment, Naomi, thank you! I am full of the critical self-talk and label making at the moment. It is good to see it labelled for what it is – crap that I need to be aware of and stop punishing myself with!
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Great article! I am just doing research to write about primary and secondary suffering and this was super insightful. I love how you think of secondary suffering like feeding the beasts at the zoo! So glad I found this blog 🙂
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Thanks, that’s a great encouragement 😀