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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Chosen Suffering


I used to work with a Marine veteran who ran 100-mile endurance runs, sometimes in a desert setting. At my peak running performance in the United States (U.S.) Marine Corps (USMC), I rarely ran over eight miles at a time.

Astonished by the veteran’s admission to eating pancakes slathered in peanut butter at the starting line, defecating himself during the runs, and requiring several days of recovery after completing these athletic feats, I asked why on earth someone would willingly do such a thing.

My coworker told me when life proved challenging he could remind himself that hardly anything would be as tough as the runs (pun intended). Similar reasoning was part of the purpose for USMC boot camp, as well.

Going through the rigors of military training, I learned that I was more capable of enduring hardship than previously thought. Many years later, a friend of mine notified me of the Wim Hof Method with which she was experimenting.

I, too, decided to give it a try. Using a journal to track results provided me with rich insight related to techniques used with people I’ve helped for many years.

Specifically, my findings highlighted the difference between motivation and commitment. To simplify my framing, I consider motivation as a desire and commitment as a values-based choice.

I may desire to again run an 18-minute three-mile run, as I once did in the USMC, though without any reason other than being motivated to do so I may not accomplish this task. Without the value of undergoing discomfort necessary to achieve my aim I likely wouldn’t choose to train.

When trying the Wim Hof Method in December 2020, I committed to a definite timeline. Similar to USMC boot camp, which was 11 weeks long when I enlisted, a set time of completion was something upon which I could reflect when suffering the most.

During my trail process of the Method, Winter Storm Uri occurred and resulted in what some people have since referred to as “snowmageddon.” I was left without electricity and water for several days, as well as access to clients for about a week.

It wasn’t a good time for me or many other people.

Nonetheless, because of my military training, I knew what to do in order to survive. Because of the Method, I had continued preparation for suffering associated with the event.

While I didn’t enjoy the experience, I didn’t self-disturb by telling myself it should, must, or ought not to have occurred. Moreover, I didn’t experience low frustration tolerance (LFT) by deceiving myself into believing, “I can’t stand it!

Not my first environmental event, I’ve experienced tornados, blizzards, earthquakes, typhoons, firestorms, hailstorms, and heatwaves. There was no catastrophizing or awfulizing for me during the “snowpocalypse.” I simply endured as I had in other events.

If you will forgive me a final anecdote, I invite you to consider a lesson described by one source regarding Biosphere 2, a vivarium science research facility in Arizona:

“[T]hey had trees growing faster than they would grow in the wild. Also, they found that these trees wouldn’t completely mature. Before they could, they used to collapse. Later it was found that this was caused by the lack of wind in the biosphere. And it turns out, wind plays a major role in a tree’s life. The presence of wind makes a tree stronger, it is thus able to mature and not fall down due to its own weight.”

Are you similar to a tree raised in a bubble? Will you be able to grow strong in the face of adversity or challenge? Will a breeze in the form mild discomfort cause you to tumble over?

Without annoyance, displeasure, uneasiness, irritation, or slight distress, how will you handle deeper strain, suffering, problems, and hardship inherent in life? In the interim for such events, how might you prepare yourself in order to develop resilience?

Resilience-building and Self-care

While I no longer practice the Wim Hof Method, my experience with having done so reminded me that commitment is perhaps more important than motivation when endeavoring to accomplish a meaningful task. As well, I strengthened my ability to build resilience.

Per one source, “Building resilience is a process by which people become better at reframing thought patterns and tapping into a strengths-based approach to working through obstacles.” This applies to 100-mile runs, freezing which disrupts utility sources, and mental health challenges alike.

Programs such as Master Resilience Training have been used to educate U.S. military leaders in accordance with principles taught in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). In particular, the REBT ABC Model is used to dispute irrational beliefs.

The ABC Model is framed as follows:

(A)ction – What occurred

(B)elief – What you told yourself about (A) that resulted in (C)

(C)onsequence – What you felt (emotion or bodily sensation) about what happened and what you did (behavior)

(D)isputation – How you might challenge (D) what you told yourself (B), which led to (C)

(E)ffective new belief – What (E)ffective new beliefs you can tell yourself rather than using unhelpful or unhealthy narratives (B).

As a formula, think of it as follows: A+B=C÷D=E. In the current blog entry, I won’t get into the nuances of how disputation works.

If you would like a more in-depth understanding about my approach to REBT disputing, I invite you to review blog entries listed under the Disputation portion of my blog.

In conjunction with the ABC Model, I assist my clients with resilience-building through exploration of homework activities that may be performed outside of session to strengthen the outcome of lessons addressed in our sessions.

Generally, I encourage clients to incorporate some form of self-care into their weekly routines. While no self-care regimen is perfect, I appreciate the guideline established by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

Much has been discussed about this topic in modern “therapy culture”—brought to you by social media platforms wherein people regurgitate psychotherapeutic techniques and principles without addressing contextual issues or adequately explaining these measures—as I’m not a fan of this trend.

I could generate a 30-second video in which I briefly delve into the complexity of suffering inherent in life, all while dancing to a syrupy sweet pop song, though I remain unconvinced that this fad serves as much more than a distraction to suffering. Still, I acknowledge that not all distraction is unhelpful.

Per one source, “Activities are a great way for us to distract ourselves from our current emotions until we are better able to cope. When our level of distress is too high, we may not be able to effectively handle a situation and need ways to bring our emotional state down.” I agree.

I think popular self-care promotional content ventures off the path of practicality when victimhood is promoted over resilience-building. Regarding this matter, one source suggests, “The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.”

When working with clients and fostering resiliency, I invite them to consider personal responsibility and accountability—collectively, ownership. Imagine the following scenario.

Since the cold times of 2021, many people in Texas report a sentiment of impending doom when the outdoor temperature dips. Will there be another freeze? Will the power grid go offline? Will another reported 246 people succumb to death if the Frostōkereti occurs?

Suppose the pipes of my home once again wail within the walls in the early hours of the morning. I may go without water, electricity, and a way to communicate with people in my personal and professional life.

Will I play the victim role, rigidly demanding that things must not be this way? Might I adopt extreme narratives about how I think the world must treat me?

Will making myself a victim and then practicing escapism, distraction, or using superficial TikTok cringe-worthy psychobabble nonsense help me in any way? I find that a surprising number of people support this approach.

Albert Ellis, creator of REBT, once stated, “There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.”

Promoting the practice of ownership in order to build resilience and when given the aforementioned scenario, I would tell myself, “While I wish winter weather wouldn’t occur, or at least that I wouldn’t be inconvenienced, the reality is that I don’t control the weather and annoyances are a part of life.”

I may even increase frustration tolerance by acknowledging, “I’ve been through a similar situation before and made it out alright. Even if a worse fate is in store for me, inflexibly demanding that things must not be this way will only add to my discomfort.”

Sure, I could tell myself, “This is terrible, horrible, awful, and the worst thing ever! Fuck my life! I shouldn’t have to endure another cold weather event!” Though, how will that help? The irrational belief about how life should or shouldn’t be wouldn’t serve me well.

For the victim-perpetuator in the audience, I imagine someone saying, “But Deric, you could actually die in another freezing event. You aren’t being realistic.” To you, I recommend my blog entry entitled You gon’ die: The existential window.

I don’t waste my precious time left on this earth by lying to myself about mortality.

At any rate, I think it’s important to build resilience—what Marines call “intestinal fortitude” (guts)—in order to better manage the effects of suffering. Therefore, when negotiating homework with clients I differentiate between self-soothing and self-care for this very reason.

According to one source, “Self-soothing is defined as an individual’s efforts or capacity to calm oneself while in a state of emotional distress.” I promote the use of self-soothing during intense moments of emotional discord (e.g., taking a timeout during an argument and using tapping for 15 to 20 minutes).

Self-soothing can prove beneficial during acute emotional distress, as well as a means of relaxation absent suffering. Knitting, resting in a warm bath, guided meditation, autogenic training, and reading are examples of this technique.

In addition to the NIMH guideline listed above, I encourage my clients to incorporate another element into self-care. Though it may seem counterintuitive, to build resilience I promote the use of chosen suffering.

Chosen Suffering

I’ve not read the book Chosen Suffering: Becoming Elite in Life and Leadership. However, I have come across a purported quote by one of the authors:

Though I’m uncertain of contextual matters regarding the book, the quote reflects research and literature of Paul Bloom. Bloom has stated that “people in the more pampered societies do seek-out suffering. We often choose difficult, meaningful, pursuits.”

While I didn’t observe similar traits among some countries in which I lived as a Marine, I’ve noticed that in the U.S.—where a significant number of people have their basic needs met—there seems to be a correlation between suffering and LFT.

In many other nations, people don’t appear to dissolve at the faintest experienced discomfort. If bombs are falling from the sky or improvised explosive devices are riddle along your path from point A to B, you likely have more with which to concern yourself than what syllables people pronounce with their mouths.

Likewise, and admittedly a subjective observation, for many places in which I’ve lived outside of the U.S., people aren’t creating problems for the sake of having purpose and meaning. In some places, unchosen suffering cascades the desire for chosen suffering.

Regarding this matter, one source states, “[C]hosen suffering can help us achieve different levels of pleasure and meaning. Unchosen suffering, such as chronic illness or the death of a loved one, might sometimes make us stronger in the long run or give us a sense of meaning, but it’s not necessarily good in and of itself.”

This is where Jocko Willink’sgood” philosophy and my perspective diverge. REBT maintains that rather than an A-C connection, we disturb ourselves with beliefs—B-C connection.

In this way, I agree that actions which lead to unchosen suffering are not the cause of how we disturb ourselves. Rather, the Epictetian notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters,” is worth considering.

Nonetheless, I hesitate to assign a subjective label of good, bad, right, wrong, or otherwise to actions with which our belief systems form perspectives. Your young child slowly and painfully dying of leukemia is not necessarily a “good” thing.

In my opinion, unchosen suffering—even when we tell ourselves rational narratives about events which influence it—isn’t worth moralizing. Telling myself that a freezing event in Texas is “good” or “bad” simply distracts from what is.

Per David Hume’s is-ought problem—said to occur “when one makes claims about what ought to be that are based solely on statements about what is”—there is no need to trivialize an action, occurrence, or event with subjective labels or demandingness.

Aside from this minor quibble, I invite you to conduct a brief experiment. Think of some worthwhile accomplishment you consider rewarding. (Yes, I acknowledge the subjectivity inherent herein.)

Examples could be akin to graduating Marine boot camp, completing a college degree, raising a child, running 100 miles through a desert while shitting yourself, or even having achieved a personal record for your self-care fitness routine. Now ask yourself, did your accomplishment come easily?

Was there some degree of suffering associated with the process? If you shy away from the term “suffering,” perhaps you prefer “discomfort.” Did you experience discomfort in your journey to success?

Perhaps someone reading this may say, “Deric, I earned a bachelor’s degree by barely attending class, cheating on exams and assignments, and I barely even applied effort when in school.” For this person, ask yourself, do you truly consider your accomplishment a worthy one?

For the rest of us, it’s likely there was some measure of struggle that led to a rewarding outcome. I recall in boot camp the day recruits were called Marines, having earned the title through blood, sweat, and tears.

How many of your successes came easily? What truly meaningful accomplishment did you achieve that didn’t entail a degree of suffering?

Aside from the value of accomplishing tasks, intermittent periods of low-level suffering may prepare us for times of immense distress. Many people tend to experience the slightest discomfort and use an LFT approach to life.

They turn away from discomfort rather than facing difficult situations and building resilience by lessons learned through struggle. If I cannot lift a 200-pound weight without ever having practiced weight training, I can gradually build strength by exercising with less weight while incrementally increasing resistance.

Likewise, adding the element of chosen suffering to something like the NIMH self-care guideline may help you prepare yourself for inevitable struggles experienced in life. Once we then face unchosen suffering, we may then do so with the knowledge that maybe…just maybe we actually can handle it.

If you’re seeking comfort, a false sense of safety, continual validation for unearned accomplishments, and an easy approach to mental health care, I encourage you to explore your options wherever you may find them.

However, if you’re looking for a provider who works to help you build resilience by pushing through discomfort and facing suffering, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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