Embrace the Suck

Shit happens.
Having just been to the funeral of a loved-one, I am reminded of a cruel fact of life: shit happens.  Bad shit happens all the time and, often, there is nothing we can do about it.

Actually, that's not quite right.  We can always do one thing when shit happens: react to it.  When bad shit goes down, the one thing we have control over is how we react to the bad stuff.  In fact, that is the thesis of Viktor Frankl's classic Man's Search for Meaning: how we react to adversity defines us.

But, of course, this fact brings up a philosophical and practical question: how should we react when bad things happen? Is there a "best" cognitive strategy for coping with bad shit?

The answer to that question is important for many reasons.  From a performance perspective, how we react (internally and externally) to hardship will impact our ability to "get the job done", whatever that might be. For example, if we let our suffering bubble up as anger, we might alienate our boss or an important client.  Internally, if our suffering distracts us, our quality of work may suffer too.

From a health perspective, how we react to difficulty will influence our well-being.  For example, an extremely negative emotional reaction may trigger a stress response.  Unchecked, such a response turns chronic, and brings with it all the documented health nastiness that we hear about.

So, what should we do, metacognitively speaking, when the shit hits the fan?  One method, which is somewhat intuitive, might be to try to ignore the bad stuff: put it out of your mind.  However, this approach may be counterproductive.

An alternative strategy is to actually face suffering head-on.  In fact, this strategy has been adopted by three very different schools-of-thought that each know a lot about dealing with hardship, and is the approach I like most for dealing with my own shit.

The first example comes from the military and is the source of this post's title.  The military phrase "Embrace the Suck" is a crude way of saying "Face the Music".  The lives of military personnel rival almost any endeavor in a nefarious combination of physical and mental hardship: physical exertion, discomfort, sleep deprivation, isolation, fear, injury.  In other words, war sucks.

But, how do top war-fighters react to the suckiness?  Try to ignore it?  No, instead this common phrase is a reminder to not sugar coat a bad situation but, rather, to look suffering in the eye and embrace it as a part of life and as a part of getting the job done. In fact, it appears that some soldiers actually come to revel in suffering as part of the challenge. For example, this guy.

The second take on this cognitive strategy is from a very different source: Buddhism.  Interestingly, Buddhism, which is a philosophy that strives to maximize joy, identifies suffering a fact of life: it's unavoidable.  Moreover, Buddhist teachings actually suggest that we "touch our suffering" and mindfully explore both the cause and feeling of suffering.  The Buddhist practitioner is often encouraged to "smile at suffering", acknowledging suffering as part of life and recognizing suffering as a complex experience that makes happy moments better by contrast. For more on the details of the Buddhist philosophy, you can check out Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings (FYI: this is a philosophy book, not a book about science).

Finally, in performance psychology, the "mindfulness, acceptance, commitment" approach, which I've discussed before, and is described in detail by Frank Gardner in The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance, offers a scientific perspective on the "embrace the suck" philosophy.  Proponents of this school-of-thought suggest that top athletes recognize pain and suffering (mindful), accept it as part of athletics (embrace it/accept it), and finally move on and get the job done (commitment) in the face of adversity.  The mindful awareness and acceptance of suffering, though, are the essential first steps. The best athletes embrace the suck.

Why might this approach work? The opposite strategy - ignoring bad things - may be counterproductive because it nearly guarantees that bad shit is going to catch us off guard. Then, all the negative emotion can rush forward uncontrolled, like some homunculus back-hand to our amygdala.

Alternatively, embracing pain and bringing it into awareness may act as a pressure release, while also giving us time to craft strategies for coping. In addition, consciously evaluating emotionally charged thoughts and feelings seems to make emotions and sensations less visceral and more intellectual, further reducing their power over us.

The examples I've provided may seem extreme: soldiers, athletes, monks.  However, we all have our own shit to deal with and it never hurts to be a tougher person or to become better at coping with bad shit. Anecdotal and observational evidence suggests that an "embrace the suck" mentally is a decent metacognitive strategy for enhancing our toughness.

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