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Growth Through Pain: Avoid Suffering and Change Life for the Better

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.

Growth Through Pain - Faster To Master

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Perfect for you if:

  • You know you need to make a change but you don’t know how.
  • You want to navigate through pain without deep suffering.
  • You find yourself thrown into the unknown and need a direction to swim.
  • You want to learn and grow from a painful experience so that you can change your life for the better.

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This guest post was written by Erin Young, founder of Zen Green Tea. You can find out more about her in the author box at the bottom of this post or leave a comment to get in touch.

Thrown Into The Unknown

I remember vividly my own painful event, it was the sinking realisation that my two-and-a-half-year relationship was over. At the time I felt despair and huge levels of anxiety at the unknown future that lay ahead of me. I had changed my entire life for that relationship and when it ended I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of having to pick myself up and choose a new future, especially in the sad state I was in.

Fast forward to today, almost a year later, where I have never been more at peace or happy. It takes hindsight to be able to look back on that journey and see the strategies, tactics and knowledge that helped me navigate through the unknown to a better place.

The hardest times in life can be the biggest teachers. Hard times can break some people but for most people hard times can offer the opportunity to reach a level of higher functioning. This positive change is known as Posttraumatic growth (PTG) which is more than just resilience to get back to your starting point. It is more like thriving where you find added benefits to your life that are born from the challenge.

With PTG, the growth does not occur as a direct result of the trauma/hard time but instead it is born from the struggle a person goes through in handling and navigating through the new reality. This process is what allows you to redefine yourself and if done right achieve growth and a better life.

I only read about PTG recently but I could immediately identify with it because the painful event I went through was exactly what I needed to push me into a happier life that better met my individual ideals.

I want to share with you the process I used to navigate through my new reality because the strategies and techniques I used helped me greatly to avoid deep suffering, tipped the scale towards positive growth and gave me strength to rebuild a better life.

The Pre-Work

When I went through my painful experience it became quickly apparent how valuable some of the previous reading I had done on strength, resilience and self-worth was in gathering strength to face this pain on my own terms. It’s so important to stockpile strength and learn in the good times. It lays the foundation to carry you through the bad times. Here are a few resources that I drew wisdom and inspiration from both before and during the painful event that helped me:

  • Sheryl Sandberg’s Letter on Grief and Resilience: This was pivotal. Sheryl has expanded on this in her excellent book Option B. These writings talk about the grief she faced when her husband suddenly passed and, as a result, threw her life on a completely different and unwanted path. Her wisdom, resilience and search for help is inspiring.
  • About Love Blog: I love this blog written by a couple, Mara and Danny, who have been through some incredibly hard times- divorces and infertility- but have turned toward love to transform their lives and help others do the same.
  • Man’s Search for Meaning: This book is a great source of inspiration to find hope in the worst circumstances. It is written by Victor Frankl who endured unimaginable circumstances in concentration camps during WW2 (book crunch here).
  • Search Inside Yourself: This is a fantastic starting point to being more mindful and gain a better understanding of yourself. It’s a pragmatic, easy to understand introduction to mindfulness, meditation and emotional intelligence which can help you build a stable inner foundation.
  • Meditation: Meditation helps you become self-aware, and develop a solid inner peace which can help you through hard times. I love the app Headspace which is a good place to start to learn how to meditate. Just 10 minutes a day can start you on the right path.

Choosing Acceptance

Research into PTG has found that the ability to accept a situation which cannot be changed is crucial to being able to adapt to a traumatic life event. This is called “acceptance coping” and it is necessary to accept a new reality in order to experience any growth and learning.

It took two days for me after the painful event happened to accept my situation. The difference between non- acceptance and the decision to accept the situation was profound. Before acceptance, I had no space in my mind, there was a battle going on inside my head where I was blaming myself, going through all the options and decisions leading up to the break up and fighting against the new reality.

After two days I decided to re-read Sheryl Sandberg’s essay on resilience and after I had finished that I decided with my first ounce of determination to be resilient, to accept the situation and to deal with it in the best way I could.

Acceptance for me meant becoming a friend to myself when no one else was there to be one. I told myself that I did all I could possibly do with the information and resources I had at the time. The sudden calm and stillness that came from acceptance was profound. When you surrender you stop blaming, you stop denying, you stop fighting and when you take these things away you give yourself back some headspace and peace.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Research into Post traumatic growth shows that it is incredibly beneficial to have supportive people in your life during a painful time who are able to craft stories and offer different perspectives on the changes happening to a person. When I was confronted with my new reality one of the best things I initially did for myself was to research books about women who have experienced significant pain but have then conquered change with strength. I started reading Eat Pray Love, Wild, and Tiny Beautiful Things as well as re-reading Sheryl Sandberg’s letter on grief. I found so much solace in identifying with their struggles. It gave me the strength to make the first step towards change.

In the next few weeks after the break up when I was travelling I met some incredible women. By showing my own vulnerability they told me their own stories of pain and how it led them to the better lives they are living today. All these stories forced me to examine why this big change occurred and why I was unhappy in the first place. Finding the answers to these questions allowed me to make conscious choices to change aspects of my life. All these changes added up to eventually let me live a better life than before.

For anyone going through a hard time, from changing jobs, relationships, experiencing sickness, or the loss of a loved one; I strongly suggest you find stories (both in people and in books) to identify with that can help you find hope and the strength to take the first steps.

Pain v.s. Suffering

An incredibly important insight one can gain in life is that pain and suffering are not the same thing. They are often lumped together but they can be separated and you can experience pain without suffering. Everyone has painful times in their life, and pain is important to help you learn and grow. Suffering however is not a required experience for growth and often it can hinder growth as it can often lead to hopelessness, deep anxiety and depression.

A lot of meditation is based around separating pain and suffering through the practice of “letting go.” In the pre-work I recommended the app Headspace which is a great initial way to get started in meditation. During their meditation sessions you practice noticing emotions as they arise and fall, and being able to see them for what they are but then being able to let go of them. During hard times, this awareness and ability can help you control your thoughts and emotions so you can maintain your inner calm. There is a great metaphor where you can view yourself as an ocean- the top layer might be choppy but dive a little deeper and your core is always the same – calm and clear.

Suffering stems largely from grasping and aversion. Grasping is when the mind is trying desperately to hold onto something- this is why I was deeply suffering before I chose to accept the situation. Aversion is when the mind refuses to accept something- for example the new reality. In both of these cases the reality itself does not change (I was still going to have to go through a break up) but if I was to grasp and avert the whole process I would cause myself deep mental turmoil which is suffering. If I was to instead separate the pain and stop allowing myself to practice grasping and aversion then I could experience the pain (and the growth that stems from it) without suffering.

As the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in “Meditations” (book crunch here):

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Setting The Rules

In order to avoid grasping and aversion it is a good idea to set some specific rules for yourself to follow while you navigate through the hard time. These rules will be unique to every person but a good way to define them is to use your past experiences. Have you been through a similar hard time in the past, if so what were the major things that in hindsight caused the most suffering?

For me, I had been through another break up when I was 19 as well as a few other taxing times- change of careers- isolation when I started my business- and I knew from those experiences some of the worst practices I had which brought me the most suffering and delayed me from reaching the new place I wanted to be in life.

These practices were:

  • No independent sense of self-worth: I have in the past always attached my self-worth to reference points outside of my control like the way I looked, my bank balance, my career, the approval I sought from others. These reference points are shaky and will always change. By using these points, I was allowing my self-worth to change rather than be a solid constant.
  • Mental rumination: The worst part of a painful event can often be the constant playback (rumination) and analysis of every small detail. Rumination leaves you clutching at straws to find meaning in situations or words where there was none. It’s easy to walk down endless roads of “what if”. Every time I have ruminated in the past over a painful event I would end up in a messy and sad state that did not change the situation and only made my suffering worse.
  • Non-acceptance: Denying or fighting against a situation will cause serious suffering. Acceptance is needed to start to step forward and out of the pain.
  • Lack of a goal and hope: On any other journey, without a destination you lose hope and become lost. Despite this journey being emotional not physical, the same rules apply. To get through a painful event you need to set an achievable goal which will help you maintain hope and momentum for the journey.

For the painful event I went through I created rules for how I would address each of these points:

Rule 1: Fortify my self-worth: I made an active effort to form new mental habits to help me detach my self-worth from all the shaky pillars I had based my self worth on in the past. I constantly reinforced to myself that I was enough exactly as the person I am. It was not easy to do this at first, every time I compared myself to others and felt inadequate I had to consciously override this thought with positive affirmations. Overtime however this became easier and eventually it became natural and subconscious. A blog I adore “About Love” has a great free email series where Mara takes you through her journey of building her self-worth. It’s a great initial starting point to help you build self-worth. You can sign up for her free email series here.

Rule 2: Do not ruminate. I made a huge effort to stop myself from constantly playing over the painful event (plus all the things leading up to it) in my mind. Catching myself and changing my behaviour (turn on music, read a book, watch a tv show) as soon as I would do this helped me hugely in avoiding falling into any pits of despair.

Rule 3: Practice acceptance. Although acceptance had already happened up front before I wrote the rules, I soon realised that I needed to constantly practice acceptance throughout the journey. It can be so easy to slip back into grasping and aversion during the ups and downs of the journey. I used some affirmations throughout the journey which helped me every time I felt myself grasping or averting. These affirmations include:

  • I made the right choice. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time to make a decision for my wellbeing.
  • Yes it is ok to feel pain and sadness but this is temporary and will get less with time.
  • Replacing sadness with gratitude for the good memories we did share.

Rule 4: Work towards something achievable. I set myself an achievable goal for six months in the future. The goal was simply to look back on the previous six months and know that I had fun, exposed myself to new experiences, and that I had made the effort to meet more people.

I could have made my goal much harder by forcing myself to try and suddenly achieve my greatest dreams but it would have been futile because I was in an unhappy place so that would have felt like a lot of pressure and stress. My achievable goal let me relax, and pull myself back together so that I would be in a good headspace after six months to then set the next goal.

Time Heals All

Despite the cliché, time certainly does help you through a painful event. The information I provide in this post is a guide for anyone wanting to achieve growth and learning from their painful event to help them achieve positive effects on their life.

The strategies and tools are a good starting place to help anyone reduce their suffering and move more quickly through the journey to reach the place they want to get to. For me, I was able to dramatically change my own life so that a year later I am much happier than what I was before the painful event occurred.

Some of the long lasting positive changes that I now enjoy as a result of the journey are:

  • Developed a strong, independent sense of self worth
  • Established what I want from my work and as a result feel much more motivated resulting in me creating significant growth in my businesses and feeling much happier in the work I am doing
  • Have found and cultivated better relationships with family and close friends. I am a much more empathetic person and I have used my experiences to help guide my family and some close friends through their own painful times.
  • Met an incredible man who I am lucky enough to be in a wonderful relationship with. I have learned a lot about what kind of relationship I want to be in and as a result I find myself in a relationship built on trust, openness, shared values and ensuring we both support each other’s dreams.

Share Your Story

I’d love to hear in the comments what you think of this article. If you have been through a hard time and found any additional resources, strategies or tools helped you please do share them so other readers can benefit from your insight!

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