“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering.”
-Carl Jung

No one who is suffering wants to be told that their suffering is legitimate suffering. Mentally Healthy people want the suffering to stop, want to return to a mental place where they are no longer suffering. If you are looking for a sign or a guide, this post will help you.

That makes sense. Emotional suffering can be just as awful as physical suffering. I can tell someone that their suffering won’t last, that even if they do nothing a better day will come or, at the very least, they will grow and learn new ways to be that are more rewarding  but no one has ever skipped out of my office praising the virtues of suffering no matter what I say to them.

Still, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, made a good point with his statement.

Suffering is part of the human condition. No one escapes suffering. The question is what is legitimate suffering?

Here’s a partial list:

1. You lost a loved one to death, divorce, or illness.
2. You lost something you valued, a job, a home, a pet.
3. You have become a caretaker and, even though you want to do the caretaking or feel like it is your responsibility, you are exhausted and your life is on hold.
4. You have been injured or diagnosed with a serious, even life threatening condition.

And what would illegitimate suffering be?

1. Your last child went off to college a year ago and you are sitting at home believing your life is over.
2. You would like a partner and can’t find one but the only looking you’ve done is when you’re in the grocery store.
3. You are aging and you believe your life is over or at least you’re never going to have fun again except that you haven’t done anything to develop a more satisfying, pleasurable life, such as take up a new hobby or learn something new by taking a class or make a new friend by joining a group.
4. You hate your job but you haven’t seriously looked for a different job or spent any time researching what you can do to develop a new career.
5. You are unhappy in your relationship but you handle it by being meaner to your partner than your partner is to you.

The list of legitimate suffering are things that happen in life and they can cause great emotional pain. They happen and the person they happen to has to suffer through the experience. Having said that, what is important is the degree to which they are suffering. If you don’t want to get up in the morning for an extended period of time, find yourself drinking or using drugs to escape the pain, then seeking professional help is a good idea. Talking to a friend or joining a group of people who have had or are having similar experiences can also be helpful.

Being able to talk about what’s happening is valuable.

People who try to avoid legitimate suffering altogether can develop serious mental symptoms. Avoiding by not allowing yourself to think about how you feel, by not feeling, numbing out, turning to drugs or alcohol, engaging in destructive behaviors like compulsive gambling or spending beyond ones means leads to depression, anxiety disorder, and other serious mental problems. Avoiding legitimate suffering only compounds the suffering and then there’s the original suffering and suffering caused by the consequences of attempting to avoid feeling or not seeking help when feeling seems overwhelming and impossible to handle.

As for illegitimate suffering, notice that the person who has one of those problems or even another one like the ones I listed, can choose to do something differently but chooses instead to suffer, perhaps blaming others, or life, or fate, but not doing anything to effect real change. That type of suffering is real and sometimes seeking therapy to find solutions or resolve blocks that are getting in the way of change is a big help and can lead to a transformative experience. However, that does require taking some action to create change.

All emotions, no matter how unpleasant, are normal and most people will experience all of them as they go through life. Its how a person handles those feelings, what they do or don’t do that makes a difference in the overall quality of a person’s life. You’ve heard that it’s not good to “stuff” your feelings. Well, it’s not good to stuff your feelings. That doesn’t mean you have to lose control or take to your bed for a month, it just means that you need to know what you’re feeling and then do whatever you need to do to help yourself, sometimes it’s just a matter of taking good care of yourself until the crisis has past and sometimes it’s a matter of getting busy and making an effort to make your life better.