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Suffering, Expectations and Asking for Help


by Cathy Gray

I don’t think any New Zealander would shy away from hard work, but it’s important to acknowledge that suffering is not the same as a hard day. It’s in this courageous leap to ask for help when we are in pain, that we can all embody the true Kiwi spirit.

What are our expectations of suffering and how do we manage them?

New Zealand is a beautiful country. We have every right to feel proud and grateful when we walk along Aotearoa’s sandy foreshores, happiness when we get time with loved ones in the sunshine and a collective sense of achievement when our countrymen garner world recognition. It is also a place where, as a nation, we have a general mind set of ‘she’ll be right’ and a perceived ability to just get on with things.

Sometimes, a positive outlook and the grit and determination to push through troubles is very effective. We all know people who are running a marathon with an arthritic knee, or giving clothes away to people in more need, even when they haven’t bought anything for themselves in years! It’s awesome what a national or personal belief can achieve, (I know some of you will remember the red sock campaign). It can even be inspiring when we see friends and family cope with what we view as a hard or overwhelming situation and we think ‘I don’t know how they do it’.

Here is where I see the fault lines begin to show in the general approach of ‘yeah, nah, she’ll be right’ that is a huge part of the culture of New Zealand. What if it isn’t alright? What if a person isn’t coping but we just see it that way? What if you aren’t coping? What if your apparently straightforward situation is actually breaking you down and apart every day? Who is going to help you cope with this if you think you should be able to ‘push through the pain’, but you can’t?

The everyday conversation and language in our society tends to reflect a belief that recognition of suffering equates to a wallowing in or enjoyment of our hardships. Following on from this, there can be a fear that people will become annoyed and get tired of you talking about your problems. You may even worry that people will say, “we all have problems mate, deal with it, what makes you so special”? Battling with the idea that people will react badly when we want more for ourselves is understandable, as this does happen, it’s not called the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in NZ for no reason.

Asking for Help

So how do we make a step towards healing, with people denying your need for change? It is as simple and as hard as recognizing the huge courage it takes to ask for help. I believe when you ask for help you are being a truly capable New Zealander, as you are doing everything you have to, to get through a tough time. I want people to recognize that when they ask for help, they are actually using the ‘Kiwi’ approach of doing your best in any situation. Asking for help is reflective of the desire to move forward in life, an attitude our society honours and encourages.

I believe we all have the strength and abilities to make sense of our lives, when given the tools to access and remember these qualities. That is the importance of counselling and other mental health and disability support services. It is vital to have guided and safe environments where people can come to feel recognized in their suffering. It is so important to know you have a secure environment to talk with honesty about how you are struggling. This can be the start of acknowledging that recognizing a problem is not wallowing, and that a discussion about ways to cope with and maybe change your circumstances is vital to maintaining an effective life.

Why do I say ‘cope’, and maybe ‘change’, rather than ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ your problem? It comes from my understanding as a counsellor, of the expression ‘we all have our own truth’. It is important to understand that suffering is not relative. A basic example would be a family losing a cherished loved one; some people can lose a family member and seemingly continue to function well, perceived as ‘OK’, others cannot get out of bed, which is read as normal, but only for a limited time. One reaction is not better than the other, we all cope or behave in our own special but still normal way when faced with difficulties. We also unwittingly judge and reflect on how others cope with their hard time, having set imaginary limits and timeframes on how people should behave in certain situations.

I am intrigued and focused on what creates these personal limits and boundaries. My work has shown me that there are many influences, family upbringing and conditioning, past traumas, current stresses and personal beliefs are a few of the core areas that affect how we perceive the world and create our definitions of right and wrong. Very often we don’t even know how much our generational mentality has affected our belief system.

It is because of this nuanced history, that the outcome of counselling is different for everyone, as not all problems can be ‘solved’; no one can bring back the loved one you have lost, or the job you wanted or the friend who betrayed you, no one can change your truth for you, but together we can work towards coping with and potentially changing a hard situation or even begin to shift your perception of your everyday reality. I have realised that a necessary starting point is to recognise the patterns of denying there is a problem - a denial the New Zealand culture, for all its strengths, has set in place.

The Start of the Counselling Process

So, where do we begin? It is human nature to compare ourselves to others just as it is normal to expect people to meet an idea of how you want them to behave. It is getting harder not to compare ourselves with others when our daily lives are saturated with social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc.) and we glimpse the perfect moments of others’ lives constantly. When I researched ideas around suffering, I found that most people held a belief that they were failing, but also that the people in their lives were failing them in some way. Most people living with pain feel self-blame, a belief they haven’t achieved what they ‘should’ have in life, failing themselves as they haven’t lived up to the plans, dreams and hopes they had created for themselves and sometimes, an added belief that they are also failing others because of this. Most people also live with a sense that there is someone not doing what they should for them, a partner not being caring enough, a friend wanting too much, a boss asking beyond what you can do. How can this be possible, this living with a double negative? I’m not good enough, but also this person causing me pain is not good enough to me?

The key to this double negative, which I have found is the core to most conflict, is expectations.

Of course it is vital to acknowledge where our expectations come from, what has influenced us to this point, but, and this is very important, without a sense of blame. I know how liberating it can be to see where your personal behavioural pattern comes from, perhaps seeing your relationships with family members and friends in a new way, recognizing how their opinions and behaviours impact your world view, but in counselling we know it’s best not to stay at this point, as focusing on past pain is not enough and cannot fully serve you. I know that as you recognise people’s impact on you, you will also start to know for yourself, that you have an impact on them. With a compassionate and honest approach to breaking down the layers of meaning behind our expectations of yourself and others, I believe it’s possible for all those seeking help to start the process of seeing the patterns of New Zealand’s society, the culture, our work, our family, our lives and ourselves and begin to decide what stays and what goes.

Article posted 1 May 2017

Cathy Gray counsellor takapuna auckland
Cathy Gray is a professional counsellor with a private practice in Auckland
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