Our suffering psychology, and how therapy works

Suffering is evolved into us. Photo by NASA on Unsplash


Humans are born into an experience of suffering – we cannot avoid it.  This is because our bodies are evolved from a series of organisms which relied on a response to suffering in order to survive.

For instance, we need to know when to eat.  We have developed a ‘sense of suffering’ in relation to food, so that when we don’t have enough food, we get a painful message to the effect that we need some.

Another example is social.  We have developed a sense of uncomfortable aloneness, so that when we are becoming isolated from our group, we get a painful message that we need to re-establish contact.

In this way, suffering is the body’s way of helping us survive.  Those who did not have the ‘suffering module’ inside them, died.  We are the descendants of the survivors – those who were responsive to suffering.


Careful observation will reveal that this ‘suffering system’ relies on taking personal responsibility.  When we suffer hunger, we then eat.  When we suffer loneliness, we then re-establish contact with our group.  There is always an action which we take to correct the deficit.

Sometimes, however, the ‘suffering system’ goes wrong.  Instead of taking corrective action, we fall into defensive behaviour and projection.  This is caused by a break in the chain of continuity between suffering and corrective action.  Instead of corrective action, we indulge in evasive action.

For example, when Jane suffers hunger, she has a different way of interpreting it.  She sees it as a heroic sign that she is winning a battle to become thin.  So she continues to starve herself.

In another example, when Eric suffers loneliness, he has a different way of interpreting it.  He sees it as a heroic sign that he is winning a battle for independence.  So he continues to alienate himself.

In both cases, the original corrective instinct has been replaced by a blaming instinct.  Jane sees herself as in a battle with a world that is trying to make her eat.  Eric sees himself as in a battle with a world that is trying to make him conform.


As to the origins of these distortions: often it is because, at some time in the past, the individual has been subjected to over-control, or bullying.  Jane may have had a mother who over-controlled her; Eric may have been bullied at school.

Over-controlled environments make the individual lose trust in both themselves and others.  In essence, they lose hope that their own agency will increase happiness and reduce suffering.  Jane’s mother may have hogged the limelight.  Eric’s school colleagues may have turned his every action into a cause for suffering.


Both Jane and Eric are vulnerable to anxiety and depression, because their suffering feedback loops are suffering a distortion.  They may lose a belief in their ability to help themselves.

Anxiety is a more hopeful form of mental illness.  We are still aware of the possibility of our own self-help, but we feel a tremendous sense of threat.  We wake up feeling that ‘something is wrong’, but we also feel relatively helpless to correct it.

Depression is a less hopeful, more defeated, form of mental illness.  We have lost a sense that things can get any better.  We even start to lose our appetite, for food or for company.  In a way, the original over-controlled environment has ‘won’.  Jane believes her mother.  Eric believes the bullying.


Some personality disorders are a further response to anxiety and depression.  ‘If things are this bad’, our mind thinks, ‘then I might as well exchange my original map for an alternative one, however distorted’.

If the concept of personal responsibility becomes unbearable, then we may fall into delusions about friends, or even the whole world, conspiring to manipulate our existence, common territory for borderline personality disorder, paranoia and schizophrenia.

We will then spend all our time living out dramas of manipulation and conspiracy, insisting we ourselves are helpless, and others don’t care, or are out to get us.


Putting all of the above together, we can derive a few easy ways of understanding our own psychology:

  1. Every day I wake up into suffering.  I should expect it.
  2. When I am mentally healthy, I respond to my own suffering with appropriate corrective action.
  3. Unfortunately, sometimes I will engage in evasive, defensive and projective behaviour.
  4. This is usually because, at some time in the past, I have experienced being over-controlled, and this has destroyed my faith in my own ability to correct things.
  5. I will then experience anxiety (a sense of something being wrong, but feeling powerless to correct it); or depression (a sense of corrective action being pointless).
  6. If I live too long with anxiety and depression, my body and mind may get so tired that I fall into a more serious mental disorder.  I may exchange my map of the world for a distorted one.  I will see only manipulation, conspiracy, bullying and neglect on the part of others; and only helplessness on my own part.


We can see the six points above as a kind of ladder which we can ascend or descend at various stages of our lives.  Many people will go through at least one lower stage (3 through to 6) at some time, when they will lose touch with their own agency and experience extreme suffering.

They often come to therapy when they hit stage 5, and are experiencing anxiety or depression.  My job is to help them to negotiate their way back to stage 2, appropriate corrective action and a sense of mental health.

Along the way, clients may come to see how, in the past, over-control by others has led them to lose faith in their own authentic, healthy response.  They may come to observe their own evasive, defensive and projective behaviour, and it may soften.

In this way, therapy can be a path away from distress and defensiveness, and back towards a more natural ability to exercise self-care.