From Neurotic to Transformative Suffering: Getting Off of the Rollercoaster

Freud’s brilliant but troubled disciple, Carl Jung, discussed the journey from neurotic to transformative suffering. (Just a caution: Jung’s elaborate psychological system is riddled with problems from a Christian point of view. For example, he insisted that Satan and evil were aspects of God. So one has to pick one’s way through the landmines. Nevertheless, he has some excellent insights.)

Neurotic suffering is, truly, suffering. It feels bad, and it only feels worse as it continues. However, it’s suffering that goes nowhere. In a crucial way, it’s a chosen suffering. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster. I choose to get on. There’s that sinking feeling of, “Oh boy, here we go again!” The rollercoaster has ups and downs, twists and turns. It can be exciting and help me feel alive, in a way. But it’s predictable, because it’s familiar. I know each rise and fall and curve and loop-the-loop only too well. I’ve taken this ride a hundred times before. And I end up pretty much where I’ve started, only a bit worse. Because with each ride, I get more tired, discouraged, hopeless, and stuck. And my choice of neurotic over transformative suffering causes others to suffer.

Alcoholism is one example of neurotic suffering. It follows a predictable, cyclical pattern. The cycle begins with the alcoholic experiencing a negative emotional state. This can be craving, anxiety, restlessness, anger, sadness, hopelessness, hurt, or something else. In order to medicate the emotion, the alcoholic decides to drink. His/her emotional state quickly changes from tense to relaxed, or from angry to philosophical, or from sad to happy. S/he feels better, or at least less bad. So the alcoholic drinks more, to feel even better. So far, so good.

However, as the addiction progresses, avoiding negative emotions by drinking starts to have negative consequences. Tolerance builds up, requiring more alcohol to achieve the desired effect. Relationships suffer. Health suffers. Eventually, academics or work may suffer. The alcoholic knows s/he is avoiding dealing with problems and is behaving destructively. S/he feels bad about that.

Remorse and shame are negative emotions. In order to medicate the emotions, the alcoholic drinks. And we’re back at the beginning of another cycle.

Other types of neurotic suffering include getting entangled in hopeless or toxic relationships. For example, I try for years to get the approval of a family member or friend who steadfastly refuses to give it. Or I join an addict on his rollercoaster, because I’m going to fix him. Or I keep myself overwhelmed by refusing to say “no” to others’ endless, unreasonable demands on my time and energy.

Neurotic suffering has so many negative qualities. Yet, often, we choose it instead of transformative suffering. Mainly, we opt for neurotic suffering because transformative suffering scares us. Sure, neurotic suffering gets us nowhere and keeps us stuck. But at least we can control it, to some extent. And we know pretty well how bad the pain will get, and how long it will last. We prefer the familiar to the unknown.

“Nobody changes until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change [attributed to a number of different authors]”. But at some point, the rollercoaster may get so tiresome and hopeless and painful that we decide to face the transformative suffering we’ve been avoiding.

Transformative suffering differs from neurotic suffering in the following ways. It is like an unfamiliar road, not a rollercoaster. It is linear, not cyclical: it has a beginning, middle, and end. It is not predictable. It is not under my control. When transformative suffering starts, I don’t know how bad it’s going to get, or when the suffering will ease, or what I’ll go through in the middle. I’ve never been down this road before. So I don’t know its ups and downs and twists and turns.

Unlike the rollercoaster of neurotic suffering, I will be at a different place at the end of the journey of transformative suffering. I will be a different person. If I have responded to the grace God has given me, I will be a better, more compassionate, more emotionally and relationally rich person. If not, I may be a more bitter, numb, cynical, or disconnected person.

Grief when a loved one dies can be an example of transformative suffering. (That is, unless I choose to avoid the grief by going into neurotic suffering.) To begin with, the loss itself is not my choice. I had no control over the loved one’s death. And even if I’ve lost other people I loved, I’ve never lost this person before. I don’t know how bad the grief is going to get, or how long it’s going to last. It will have unexpected twists and turns, ups and downs. There will be some days where the sorrow hits me out of nowhere. Other days, I may feel unexpectedly at peace. People I thought would be there for me may fail to come through, while people I didn’t know cared that much show up to help.

I discover that the only way past the grief is through it. But if I allow myself to feel the feelings, they eventually begin to resolve. Others who have walked a similar road can help. They can reassure me that the suffering will lessen in time. They can confirm that my bewildering and conflicting emotions are just part of the normal course.

Although I’ll always miss the person, I will eventually arrive at a sense of peace. Better, I will find that I’ve become more alive. I am more aware of others’ suffering, and I am better equipped to respond to it. My vision is clearer, and my heart is softer. I’m more aware of the things that really matter. I am grateful for the kindness of others in my loss, and so it’s easier for me to reach out to others. With St. Paul (2 Cor 1:3-4), we experience the truth,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

Other examples of transformative suffering include recovering from addictions, disentangling from toxic relationships, or dealing with a terminal or chronic illness. I don’t medicate my emotional pain through addictive behavior. Rather, I endure it while connecting with others and with God to help me through it. I don’t bury my hurt in the emotional chaos of hopeless relationships. Instead, I deal with the initial loneliness and even terror of not having a wounded puppy to center my life around. I don’t give in to becoming bitter or self-absorbed over the illness: I seek out where God is in the midst of it and honestly express my mixed and difficult emotions to trusted others.

Although choosing transformative over neurotic suffering is always the best choice, it is in no way an easy one. It’s human nature to prefer immediate over delayed gratification. Neurotic suffering offers immediate relief, with the painful consequences following only gradually and down the road. Transformative suffering requires hope, perseverance, and often the vulnerability to accept or reach out for others’ support. The benefits come, but only later.

So the rollercoaster is really tempting. In fact, most of us have several of them. The key is recognizing those habits that are, in fact, rollercoasters. Next is getting off of the rollercoaster as soon as we do recognize it.

The delightful poem, “An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” captures the trials and errors of the journey from neurotic to transformative suffering.

“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.”
Portia Nelson, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

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About admin

I am a Catholic clinical psychologist with a solo practice in Omaha, NE. In the Franciscan seminary, I completed about 2/3rd of an M.Div./MA in Scripture. In my 3rd year of temporary vows, I discerned a call to the married life. My lovely wife Mary and I have a son, Michael, as well as a number of children preceding us to Heaven through miscarriages. We are delighted to be in the Omaha archdiocese and love the Heartland.
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