The difference between pain and suffering

Lara Noik expands on the difference between pain and suffering, with acceptance being the antidote to suffering.


I often ask my clients what they think the difference is between pain and suffering. There may be different answers, but I would like to share my favourite. It’s one that I feel can be transformative to anyone going through any challenge or painful situation, and which has been a lifesaver for me.

There is a Buddhist saying: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

I know that sounds a bit difficult to believe, especially if we have experienced a lot of suffering or have witnessed it. To understand this, we are invited to picture two arrows. The first hits and causes pain. This is unavoidable, perhaps even inevitable. The second arrow, however, is based on how we experience the first one. Do we judge the pain, or feel guilt, shame or anxiety about the future that paralyses us, allowing us to be struck again? Or do we get out of the way with a single wound?

Antidote to suffering: acceptance

For me, the antidote to suffering is one word: acceptance. Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, calls it ‘radical acceptance.’ Pain is an intrinsic part of life; in whatever form it may come. Suffering, on the other hand, happens through fighting the pain, through refusing to accept reality. 

Radical acceptance is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean waving a white flag, surrender or inaction. It certainly doesn’t mean denial or avoidance, nor is it about being happy with the status quo. 

It isn’t a passive concept at all. Radical acceptance is an active acceptance of reality. It means aligning our inner vision of the world to the reality in which we live.

Have you ever heard the saying, “It is what it is”? This always used to confuse and sometimes frustrate me. What does that even mean? It is only through my own journey that I began to understand the wisdom of this statement. We have a choice to either fight reality, a futile and exhausting exercise, or accept it. As it is. It is only acceptance that allows us to move forward. 

Think about it. How can I manage my cancer if I haven’t accepted that I have it in the first place? How can I grieve if I haven’t acknowledged the loss? How can I reach out for help if I haven’t accepted that I need it? Acceptance is the first step. The springboard.

I can’t overestimate how important this was and continues to be for me in my journey. Before I could do anything, and certainly anything helpful or useful, I needed to accept that I had cancer. That was not going to change. I didn’t want to have it; I wished I could roll back the clock, or fast-forward to a time when I may not have it. But that is impossible. Fantasy and wishful thinking are neither effective nor helpful.

Where to focus your energy?

So, does that mean I accept it all passively? That I sit back and allow cancer to take its course or let others make decisions for me? Quite the contrary.

We may not have control over the cancer diagnosis. This we need to accept. To radically accept. But there are still many things that you can have some influence over. This is where you should focus your energy. 

This will be different for each person. My list looked something like this:

  • To whom do I listen, and who do I ignore? 
  • With whom do I share my journey, and how do I do so? 
  • How do I choose to follow medical recommendations?
  • How do I treat others?
  • How do I look after my body and mind?
  • How do I access (my own and other’s) kindness, grace, creativity, and gratitude?

Ultimately, while we can’t control the content, we can have control over the process – the how. How we show up to the world. To our loved ones. To ourselves. Acceptance doesn’t absolve us of pain, but perhaps it can dissipate some of the suffering and offer us a lighter and more graceful journey.

Lara Noik is a social worker in private practice and a cancer survivor. She has a special interest in the fields of mental health, resilience, and relationship work. She believes 
in the innate resilience that exists within each human being and spends her time counselling individuals, couples, and groups from this standpoint.

MEET THE EXPERT – Lara Noik

Lara Noik is a social worker in private practice and a cancer survivor. She has a special interest in the fields of mental health, resilience, and relationship work. She believes in the innate resilience that exists within each human being and spends her time counselling individuals, couples, and groups from this standpoint.


Header image by Adocbe Stock