The Gift of Symptoms

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” —Rumi

Most of us have problems or issues. We might have mental health symptoms or even a disorder or a mental illness. Nevertheless, I maintain that the things that we usually call our problems might be properly called gifts. How can something like anxiety, depression, shame, addiction or explosive anger be seen as something positive? It certainly is true that a great deal of suffering can and often does result from these and other issues and most of us, understandably, feel that the greater the distance that we have from these symptoms the better. The truth, however, is that these symptoms are also the exact place where we often find depth and wisdom.

Suffering as Motivation

It makes sense. When we are suffering, we find ample motivation to understand how we suffer in order to end the suffering. We are powerfully pushed in ways we probably would not have otherwise been to look for answers within and without. We are provoked to stretch ourselves as we explore new ways of being and seeing. We may not get to where we want to go, but mostly we do grow as we learn about ourselves, the world, and expand our options to act and perceive.

Connection with Others

What is more, there is an often unexpected side-effect of this quest that might be more valuable than the depth, wisdom and reduction of suffering: an increase in compassion and connection to others. While our first reactions to our symptoms are usually to hide them and isolate ourselves, as our symptoms deepen us, we gain an insight into others’ suffering. As we gain compassion for ourselves, we give it to others. We find our humanity as we see that instead of separating us, our suffering and struggles are part of what we all share and are one of the paths towards connection with others.

My Shame

To ground this and make it more personal, something I have struggled with most of my life is a pervasive shame. It has been part of nearly everything I do or perceive for most of my life. There is a part of me that never believes I measure up or that I am lovable or even just OK. Obviously this can limit what is possible by, for example, making it hard to meet new people (“They will not like me and that will hurt.”) or to take risks in life (“I will fail and then everyone will know the truth about me.”). Through much of my adult life, I have only wanted my shame to disappear.

Even now, I do not know that I would have wanted to feel this way about myself. Nonetheless, I cannot help but see my shame as a gift. In my own journey to end my suffering, I have been pushed to grow in ways that I feel certain I never would have otherwise. I have had to keep pushing myself to do things that are terrifying and to keep putting myself into extremely uncomfortable situations over and over.

Importantly, I have learned not only to be compassionate and fully present to myself and my own experiences but to extend this compassion to others. As I have explored and gained understanding about my own shame, I have been able to see the commonness of shame in many around me and its embeddedness in our culture. This wisdom has been invaluable in my work as a therapist.

While shame itself works to separate me from others, this knowledge brings be closer to them and gives me insight into how the world works. I cannot count the number of times I have shared with someone about my shame and watched them seem shocked (because, of course, shame is shameful) and speak of what I have just said as if it has nothing to do with them. Then, inevitably, they will say something like, “You know what you were just talking about, well, I have something similar that works like this . . .” Even if we do not end up talking about shame much, we do almost always speak with a new depth and a new level and connection because we have just shared something hard to share. This requires some trust and a reaching below the surface of our experiences for this thing we have in common.

Part of the Process

When you think about your problems, symptoms or issues, think about what Cheri Huber has to say in her book There is Nothing Wrong with You when she says there are no such things as mistakes:

“Look at [an infant boy] learning to walk. At what point should he have considered himself a failure and given up? All of the times he pitched over on his head or fell back on his bottom? Those were not successful from the definition of walking, yet they were not unsuccessful, either. They were just part of the process of learning to walk.”

Our difficulties are like that too. We only only call them problems when we forget that it is just part of the process of learning to be alive.