The Cage of Our Own Making: Letting Go of Self-Made Suffering

I am willing to bet that right now, as you read these words, your brain is processing something else in the background. And if my almost 40 years of living on this earth have taught me anything, it’s that the thing your brain is fixated on is something painful.

The world is so adamant on causing us pain. It is filled with indelicate people, cruel people even. Sometimes, it feels like just stepping out of our homes or logging in to our social media accounts is an act of bravery. In a civilization that seems to grow angrier and more bitter every day, interacting with others means betting on getting our feelings hurt.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about what we do with the pain other people cause us. I want to talk about how some of us take the rods they throw at us and use them to build a cage for ourselves.

It’s natural to fixate on the things people say and do that hurt us. But natural doesn’t necessarily mean healthy or wise. When we cling to the things that hurt us — to the injustice of people’s actions, the cruelty of people’s words — we cage ourselves in. We surround ourselves with the pain until it traps us inside.

I want us to be the kind of people who can let shit roll off our backs. And I know. Easier said than done.

Think about it, though. We can’t stop the world from getting its mess all over us (unless we want to be hermits, of course). The reality is that we live in a society made up of people who are all dealing with their own pain, and sometimes, their pain causes them to treat us poorly. Sadly, I doubt that’s changing any time soon.

Their treatment of us is the first pain. Our fixation on it, the way our brains and hearts mull it over again and again, that’s the second pain. It’s this second pain I want us to start doing battle with. Because this pain, dear reader, is the one we have some control over.

Take a look at this quote from the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler:

We also add to our own suffering in other ways. All too often we perpetuate our pain, keep it alive, by replaying our hurts over and over again in our minds, magnifying our injustices in the process. We repeat our painful memories with the unconscious wish perhaps that somehow it will change the situation –but it never does. 

Obsessing over the hurt will never change what happened. It will never erase the pain. What it is absolutely guaranteed to do is to erode your happiness further. It cages you in, trapping you in a steel box of anger, sadness, resentment, and shame.

I’ll be honest, I am still on the journey of learning how to not be trapped in a cage of my own making. I’ve been in therapy for over two years and I still struggle with not letting my brain fixate on the first pain, and thus, causing me the second pain. But I’m learning — slowly, cautiously.

I’m learning that the pain people cause me isn’t about me. It’s about them. They walk around carrying their own burdens, their own mess, and sometimes that mess gets on me. That doesn’t mean it’s about me.

I’m learning that I don’t have to agree with other people’s opinions of me. If their opinion of me isn’t about me in the first place, then why do I feel obligated to agree? Instead, I release their opinion. I do not have to wear it like a scarlet letter.

Lastly, I’m learning how to rely on my incredibly small circle of trusted people in my life to help me sort through the opinions that challenge me. I don’t ever want to become the kind of person who is completely immune to feedback from other people. If I get too comfortable rejecting the opinions of others, I run the risk of rejecting opinions that could be useful for my personal growth, my mental health, and the health of my relationships. So, when confronted with a hurtful opinion that challenges me, I bring that opinion to the people in my circle. The people who know me. I hold the opinion up to the light and ask, “does this fit? Is there any truth here?” And the people who have earned my trust, who I know are on my side and want only the best for me, can tell me if this is an opinion that I should spend some time with. They can give me that feedback in a way that doesn’t cause that second pain, but rather, that nudges me toward a better version of myself.

This is a part of my journey that I have to see as a work in progress. I’m not there yet. I’m not in a place where I naturally embrace these three learnings each time someone causes me pain. Often, I let myself fall into the useless routine of fixating, ruminating, and obsessing over the pain — wrapping that second pain around me like a prickly blanket that itches but is at least familiar. I give myself grace when that happens, understanding that I’ll get there eventually. These things take time. I trust myself to become the person I am trying to be.

I invite you to do the same, dear reader.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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