Everyone suffers at times. There is suffering that occurs due to something outside of one’s control. I will not address that here. There is also suffering that occurs due to the choices that are made.
Many years ago, an older colleague of mine made a profound statement. He said that through all his years working in mental health, he learned that it is pain that causes change. Dr. Alfred Adler said it in a different way. He was working with a patient and the patient was suffering but was not changing. Dr. Adler said to him, “I don’t think that you have suffered enough yet. You need to go home and suffer some more. When you have suffered enough and decide that you must change, please come back and I would love to work with you.”
There are degrees of suffering from mild to severe. When there is something that needs changing and it isn’t addressed, the suffering begins. When nothing is done, the suffering increases over time.
Think of getting a ticket for speeding as a metaphor. You made a mistake and the consequence is that you got a ticket. You suffered for a minute, and threw it aside and forgot it. Then you were called to court because you didn’t pay the ticket. You suffered a bit more but decided to avoid the court hearing. Then one day a police officer arrested you and took you to jail. Then you started really suffering. Finally, you decided you didn’t want to suffer like this anymore, so you did your time, paid your fine, decided not to speed anymore and started looking for a new job. You lost the one you had because you were in jail.
When suffering occurs, it is important to examine the choices that were made that resulted in this suffering. Dr. Alfred Adler said that you are not a re-actor, but you are an actor in life. You can’t change others, only yourself. Others make choices about how they will behave and you choose how you will deal with their behavior. Sometimes several different choices have to be tried until one is found that works.
Clients come to us when they are suffering. Have they suffered enough? Are they ready to change? I read a statement recently that was very profound. It said that a teacher is responsible for teaching but is not responsible for whether the student chooses to learn.
Some clients are eager to learn and change. Some need to be taught the lesson many times, and maybe from several teachers, before the learning sticks. Others aren’t ready to learn yet. They would like others to change or life to change. They don’t understand that they need to learn from their suffering and change themselves and become a better person and help to create a better community.
Sometimes we, as therapists, will be one of many teachers that they see before their lesson is learned. Sometimes, we have to be patient with clients who are suffering and help them realize that not changing leads to more suffering. Some stubbornly refuse to change and we have to honor their decision, as Dr. Adler did.
Susan Pye Brokaw, LMFT
Founder, Adlerian Network