Abuse, Human Nature, Ideas, Learning, Life, Living, New Idea, Self-determination, Self-Knowledge

Familiar Suffering

SUMMARY:  Why does it seem so many of us prefer to suffer, rather than do what seems obvious to others will bring about an end to our particular suffering?  Perhaps one reason is that we fear the unknown.  Perhaps another reason is that it is generally difficult to understand what would be better than our current circumstances if we are unfamiliar with what would be better.

(About a 3 minute read)

“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

I think many of us — especially when we’re young — now and then come across someone we believe we can save.  That is, someone who is recognizably messed up, but not so messed up that we deem them beyond “straightening out”.

Sadly, you cannot save, you cannot straighten out, someone.  They have to do it themselves. The most you yourself can provide is encouragement and — if you’re lucky — wise guidance.  But how many of us understand that about people before we ourselves have tried — often more than once or twice — to save someone?

I know that was a hard lesson for me to learn.  One of the hardest parts of it was to grasp that so many of us prefer the misery we know to the happiness we don’t know.

There’s a young woman I know who is a nearly perfect example of that.  She frequently and bitterly complains about her situation and all the bad things thrown her way.  For instance, she’s of an age when both an unfulfilled desire for companionship and an unfulfilled desire to get laid can combine to render you miserable even if everything else in your life is going great — which in her case, it’s not.

But she absolutely refuses to take even the very minimal step to fulfill her desires of simply finding ways to meet new people.  Instead, she’s an encyclopedia of excuses why taking that step would be futile on her part.  In short, she prefers the misery she knows to the happiness she doesn’t know.

People can be even more set in their ways when something as powerful as the desire for companionship or sex is not driving them — and especially if it is difficult for them to image what it would be like for things to really be different.

You often enough see it in more than one way with people who were abused as children. Some of them grow up to become abusers themselves.  Presumably, how they were taught as children to relate to people becomes how they think it is natural — or even inevitable — to relate to people.

Some others grow up to become abused.  Observers often remark that they seem to be attracted to people who will abuse them, but I don’t think that’s precisely true.  It seems to be more likely the case that they are attracted to the familiar, and the familiar just happens to be people who fit the profile of abusers.

I have known people who could not recognize simple kindness for what it is.  They saw it as a strings-attached ploy to set them up for manipulation or emotional blackmail.  “I did you a favor, now you owe me.”  When you tell them that isn’t real kindness, they have a hard time grasping what you mean by “real kindness”.  It seems even when they can theoretically understand what you’re talking about, they can’t visualize it.

But more to the point, they cannot understand the importance of kindness.  They don’t see how crucial it is to a healthy relationship.  They seem to think it’s no more than sharing candy now and then.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s remark that people prefer their familiar suffering “out of fear of the unknown” strikes me as true.  But I would add to it that another motive for preferring the known is that we might be unable to understand just how different things could be for us if we would change ourselves and/or our situation.

Questions?  Comments?


This post was inspired by a post on Robin’s excellent blog that can be found here.

14 thoughts on “Familiar Suffering”

  1. Love the narration and the quote.I agree with your point that we are not sure of trying other methods because we are comfortable with the suffering which is known to us.Thank you so much for all the encouragement you give to all of us.we are indeed blessed.I take pleasure in nominating you for 3 day lyric challenge.I understand you are busy most of the time,and there is no hurry,you can take your own time in taking part.Thank you
    https://philosophyviaphotos.wordpress.com/2018/09/17/day-1-lyric-challenge/

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    1. Thanks so much for the nomination! Much appreciated. Unfortunately, I don’t participate in “pass along” awards. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, and I’m glad many people find them fun. But I don’t — just a matter of personal taste.

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  2. You said, “But I would add to it that another motive for preferring the known is that we might be unable to understand just how different things could be for us if we would change ourselves and/or our situation.” and I strongly agree with this. Once upon a time I struggled mightily with a relationships issue (relationship with my mother-in-law) and I was really miserable about it. I went to see a mental health counselor, and she gave me some invaluable insight into the situation. I wrote an e-mail to thank her, and what I said was something like this: “I felt like I was imprisoned in a room, and you showed me that the door had all the time been unlocked, and I was free to leave.” In other words, all it took in my case was a change of the perception of the situation.

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    1. I’m glad you found that door, Carla. I’d hate thinking of you as miserable.

      Changing my perception has often been the key for me too. But I’ve never been much good at convincing others to change theirs.

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  3. I am currently rising out of fear . Fear had me stuck for yearsssss, I simply just wouldn’t do certain things in fear of something going wrong. I am now learning the best things are on the other side of fear & how would I ever know if I don’t give it a shot? I was also abused as a child & for a very long time I did not discipline my children. I have now learned the difference between beating & spankin. Also if mommy doesn’t say anything they’ll just continue doing it. Learning and growing ❤ I love your blog!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words about the blog, Bri. I much appreciate that you read my posts and comment so well and frequently.

      Sorry to hear about your abuse as a child. You didn’t deserve such horrors — no one does. But I’m glad to here how well you’ve been recovering from it, not allowing it to keep you in its chains.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the link and the mention. 🙂
    Another great post, Paul. I’ve spent a good portion of my life not changing things out of fear of the unknown (or, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, preferring the suffering that is familiar to me). It’s not easy to break out of old patterns, habits, and thought cycles.
    I’m all too familiar with wanting to help save someone. That instinct still rears its head from time to time, but I learned the hard way (at the expense of a friendship) that all I can do is let others make their own mistakes. I can be there for them, but I can’t help them change.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Robin. I’ve been pressed for time recently, and my blog reading has suffered from it. So I had to prioritize which blogs to read in recent days, and once again, I was lucky to read yours.

      Like you, I’ve spent a good portion of my life too afraid of the unknown. I think I’m a bit better now, but I certainly am still imperfect at exploring things.

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  5. I use to play a game with my dad. I would hear his problems and solve them. The result always ended in a fight.

    It’s not always the fear of the unknown, sometimes people enjoy misery. They enjoy the constant day to day struggle and in some cases those struggles are created.

    Yes, I came from an interesting family. On the bright side, it gives me tons to write about. 🙂

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