Sometimes Life Just Hurts–Part I

If you don’t mind, take a minute and think about something hard or painful that you’ve experienced.  As you’re thinking about that time in your life, can you remember having thoughts like, “Why is this happening to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?”  If you can remember those thoughts, you’re keeping good company.  Many of my clients, when they’re talking about losses or challenges, eventually come to the part of the conversation where they try to understand how this happened in their lives.  That’s part of being human.  Our brains look for patterns.  We want answers to the “hows” and “whys” of life.  We try to make meaning.

I am a fan of asking questions and seeking understanding.  I think that being willing to ask those questions can be a huge part of being able to build healthy relationships.  We need to understand what went wrong so that we can build things differently.  And there are many situations where it is necessary and appropriate to ask why, and to change our behavior. But this post isn’t about those situations.

The “Random Bad Stuff”

This post is about the other painful things.  The tornado.  The sudden diagnosis of a life-threatening illness.  A miscarriage.  A car accident.  The sexual assault.  The things in life that just knock you down.  You didn’t do anything that caused them.  You didn’t somehow “deserve” them.  They just happen.  They fall into the category that I oh so eloquently call the “random bad stuff” of life. (By the way, if you have a better title for this category, I’d be happy to hear it–and borrow it.)

The random bad stuff is hard to handle not just because it shakes up your life, but because it is random.  You can go for years without experiencing it–and then be bombarded by painful events that are entirely out of your control.  For pattern-happy humans, this kind of randomness can nearly make us crazy.

I spend a lot of time with clients just exploring with clients what it means to them if bad things can happen whether you deserve them or not.  For some people, that’s a pretty scary idea.  They feel unsafe when they’re asked to confront pain that’s out of their control.  For others, there’s almost a sense of relief.  It can be a huge weight to really hear that what happened wasn’t their fault.  Some people are really angry that the sacrifices they have made to “be a good person” haven’t been rewarded with immunity from the random bad stuff.  And for most of us, there’s a mish-mash of all of those emotions and perhaps a few more.


I think that acknowledging the existence of random bad stuff, and creating safe space for all of your emotional reactions to are incredibly important foundations for coping.  Next week’s post is going to include some of the specific suggestions I most commonly offer when clients are in the middle of the random bad stuff.  For this week, I’m really interested in how you respond to the idea of “random bad stuff.”  Is this a concept that makes sense in your life?  Did I miss an important emotional response?


Image Credit: “Pain” by iProzac via Flickr




16 thoughts on “Sometimes Life Just Hurts–Part I

  1. Wow. Powerful. And something I am exploring in my own sessions at this time. I have actually used the exact term… “do I deserve this?” this is my self punitive way of thinking, my brain is hard wired to think, that I truly do deserve this illness or anything bad that happens. Trying to “change” that thought process is hard. Very hard. An assignment given to me, in the past weeks, was to ASK others, with a chronic health issue, did they deserve this? Imagine my surprise, when 2 out of 3 people said “yes”. That was validating in itself. In the meantime…as I explore how to “resolve” this issue… I have found that if I surround myself in positive people, and I engage in relationships that are equal give and take. (I tend to be the giver, not the taker), I am a healthier person. I am so looking forward to the part 2 of this blog. Thank you Ann.. Because once again, you have demonstrated, that we are not alone in this journey called life…. Kim

    1. Kim,

      I love that homework assignment. It can be startling to realize how many of us are walking around with those unfair thoughts about ourselves. And somehow, hearing someone else say it, we can begin to connect with the reality that, sometimes, bad stuff just happens, without fault.


  2. I think it is extremely helpful to people to remind them that a lot of the time painful things happen for no good reason and then we are left to pick up the pieces, make sense of a new reality and grieve what use to be. I have noticed in my clinical work and in my personal relationships that even when people cannot find a reason for something they still blame themselves and walk around with extra additional shame that only adds to their pain. A lovely post to remind us that sometimes things happen for no good reason. Best, Allison

    1. Allison,

      “Extra additional shame that only adds to their pain.” Yes! That phenomenon is what inspired me to write this post. And I hope that the voices responding to the post help people to hear that they are not alone, that each of us suffers these experiences. The isolation, shame and loneliness just increase the pain of random bad stuff.


  3. Wow powerful post. An old question, why does the good man suffer? The only book I read that helped me with this was Viktor Frankl’s Man;s Search for Meaning. He was in the concentration camps. He noticed some ppl were able to maintain compassion and dignity and others just were not able to (understandably) cope. He wondered why and talks abt this in his book. ty for the good read!

    1. Kathy,

      Thanks so much for stopping by to comment during your busy month! I stole your book suggestion and used it in part II of this post! 🙂


  4. Viktor Frankl’s book was helpful to me too. It put things in a different perspective for me, which led to gratitude and finding meaning in my own suffering.

    One of the things I have discovered is that random, senseless acts are not always as senseless as they seem. The traumatic things that have happened to me initially caused me a lot of pain, but subsequently taught me important life lessons that I couldn’t have learned any other way and gave me a greater sensitivity to other people’s suffering. This has made it possible for me to help people I might not otherwise have been able to help as a trauma therapist.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. Andrea,

      I do agree that there are lessons to be found in our greatest pain. I also think that each of us needs the time and space to grow into those lessons. Having someone tell us that “you will grow from this,” in the early days of our pain and grief can be counterproductive. One of the things I love about therapy is watching clients reach that awareness in their own natural time.


  5. Great post. So much of life is accepting what we can’t control. I’ve been really interested in resiliency research lately, and life really isn’t fair, and the people who seem to be happiest aren’t the ones to whom life is “kind.” They’re the people who tolerate the fact that life isn’t always kind, but there are always blessings to be found.

    1. Colleen,

      I’m fascinated by resiliency research as well. I like your description of the happiest people as those who can accept that life is not fair and choose to flourish anyway. That feels like a goal worth pursuing!


  6. Another reason we my find it hard to accept that bad things may happen for no good reason is that the reverse would also be true. Its scary to think that we don’t deserve the good in our lives, that it might all be dumb luck. That would mean we have no control at all. Scary thought. Makes you wonder why you try.

    1. Allysson,

      I think that it is scary, and it is also freeing. It really changes the conversation when I say, “I did well in school because I studied hard, and because I was fortunate enough to not have a serious learning disability and because I had a family life that was safe enough that I had the time to study.” When I think about success in my life as a combination of my own effort and the fortunate coincidences of my life, I am a lot more humble. I am also much more motivated to work for social justice–to try to level the playing field for those folks who didn’t have the benefits that I did. Accepting what is out of my control motivates me to focus more on what is. 🙂


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