How Good Are You At Suffering?


You may not know this about me, but before I became a Nutritionist I spent several years as a freelance cycling journalist (that’s right, like Lance Armstrong cycling). I wrote articles for different magazines and covered races. I never made it to the Tour de France in person, but every July I would be covering the race (remotely) for some outlet in either Canada or the US so I’d spend most of the month glued to my TV watching each day’s stage (it’s a 23-day race) and listening to the hours of commentary.

One thing I always remember hearing from the riders I interviewed was that they judged a competitor based on their ability to suffer.

“That kid can really suffer,” they’d say, the tone in their voices one of deep admiration and respect.

More recently, I was watching an interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She was talking about the devastation she felt in the months following the sudden death of her husband while the two were on vacation in Mexico. She knew she needed to stay strong for her two young children, but she felt like she was falling apart. She turned to her rabbi for advice and he told her to, “lean into the suck.” She was confused and he explained, “this is going to suck; don’t fight it.”

The Buddha told us that “life is suffering.” This is often misunderstood by Western readers to mean that life is just awful. But most Buddhist scholars agree that what he was really trying to convey was that the nature of life is challenge and that how you handle those ongoing challenges will decide the quality of your life. In other words, your life is determined by how you suffer.

When I’m talking to people about the cravings and emotional eating habits they wish to be free of, they often tell me that they just want it to be “easy.” They wish they could just be forever free of cravings or the pull to eat a bag of cookies when they’re feeling stressed out or exhausted at the end of a long day.

They mistakenly believe that the cookies are the problem, when really it’s the feelings that are the problem – the cookies have been the solution (although not a very effective one).

They want to be free of the cookies, but really they want to be free of the feelings that are driving them to use the cookies as a coping mechanism. But here’s the thing…

That’s not possible.

As the Buddha taught us, the very nature of life is challenge. It’s how we grow, how we learn, how we expand and evolve. Avoiding challenge – or the uncomfortable feelings that accompany it – is not the answer. It’s not possible, nor should we long for a life free of challenge.

The answer doesn’t lie it figuring out how to avoid suffering. The answer lies in how you choose to suffer. “Feeling the feelings,” is something I always talk about with my clients and students, and it’s just another way of describing suffering.

You’re going to feel exhausted. You’re going to feel stressed, lonely, anxious, worried and hurt. It’s part of being human, just like part of being human is feeling bliss, pride, delight and love.

You’re going to crave potato chips at parties sometimes. And sometimes you’re going to want to eat an entire tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream because you feel like you can’t keep up with the unreasonable demands your boss is putting on you at work. The question isn’t, how do I make these feelings go away without using food? The question is, how do I choose to feel these feelings – sit in them – and then let them go, without using food?

All of our problems around emotional eating come from our frantic attempts to avoid the feelings. I’m saying, allow the feelings to come and you won’t need the food anymore.

I don’t mean wallow in the feelings. I don’t mean feel sorry for yourself. I don’t mean play the victim.

I mean just allow the feelings to be there when they are.

As Sheryl Sandberg’s rabbi said, “lean into the suck.” It’s going to suck sometimes. And that’s okay. Let it suck – without eating the potato chips or ice cream to try to make it go away. Let the feelings come, feel them, and then let them go away again.

You can handle it. You’re stronger than you think.


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Sara Best

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