In life some suffering is unavoidable and beyond our control, but some suffering is due to our own choices and poor reactions.

What proportion of your suffering is due to causes beyond your control? What proportion is the result of your own choices and of your own unskillful reactions to things that happen? What proportion is a reasonable, healthy response to injury, illness, rejection, bullying, hardship and injustice?

Can we say that some people are entirely responsible for their own suffering while others are truly blameless victims? How much does the answer vary among different people?

What types of suffering are beyond our control? What types do we have control over?

Likewise, we can ask: how much of our happiness is created by ourselves? How much is due to external factors such as luck, grace (if such a thing even exists), and aid we receive from others?

These questions may not have clear, scientific answers. Indeed, some of the questions may be misguided. Nonetheless, the hope is that by attempting to clarify and answer them, we will come to a better understanding of the human condition.

I will explore these questions both abstractly and concretely via real life stories.

The title of this study — “Unnecessary suffering” — is meant to offer hope that it is possible to avoid much of our suffering.  But how hard is to do that? Does it require intense spiritual training, over decades, to whittle down the childish ego and its unrealistic expectations, attachments, and resentments?

Everyone suffers hardship. Some people are able to rise about circumstance and thrive. Others wallow in self-pity, addiction, loneliness, anger, or anxiety.

Therapists, spiritual teachers, and nags often say things like “In life 10% of our problems are the result of external events. 90% of our problems are due to our reactions to those events.” Or “Stop blaming people for your problem and pull your self out of the muck of victimhood.”

American psychotherapist Alfred Ellis said, “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” That statement is clearly untrue for physical suffering from injuries, violence, and accidents. But for some kinds of suffering, such as emotional suffering, it’s probably true. How often, though? And can people be expected to avoid all such emotional suffering?

Two types of suffering

For purposes of this research, the concept “suffering” includes both physical pain and emotional discomfort. But the distinction is not absolute.

Some people believe emotional suffering is often avoidable, while pain is physical and generally unavoidable.  Emotional suffering is the additional mental discomfort that results from our own clingy emotional reactions to what happens.

In other words, according to this way of thinking, emotional suffering is self-created while pain is the discomfort we can’t avoid.

Suppose something unpleasant happens to you — you get physically injured, someone insults or rejects you, or  someone you love or depend upon betrays you. If you obsess over it, hold onto anger, or feel bad about yourself, you are contributing to your suffering.

Like an overly sensitive immune system, our unskillful emotional reactions often do more damage than the initial injury.

The idea is that to a large extent we have the ability to avoid emotional suffering, by lessening attachments and by renouncing immature responses such as self-pity, blame, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, greed, avoidance, projection, gullibility, regret, and worry.

The distinction between physical pain and emotional suffering makes sense but is not absolute. Emotional suffering can be just as real and painful as physical pain. Emotional suffering sometimes leads people to acts of violence or self-harm. Furthermore, some emotional suffering seems unavoidable, given that we are alive and conscious. If your partner, close friend, or coworker badly betrays you, won’t you suffer greatly? If you have a crisis in your physical or mental health, won’t you feel bad? Need we be emotionally numb in order to be happy? Need we be hermits or automatons to protect ourselves from suffering?

In any case, for purposes of this research, the word “suffering” is meant to include both avoidable physical pain and manageable emotional discomfort. Indeed, the question we are asking is: what proportion of human pain and suffering is self-created, resulting from our choices and reactions, and what proportion is beyond our control, such as normal responses to injury, disappointment and injustice?

Are the questions misguided?

There are many ways these questions can be misguided or the answers can be misused.

The questions run into issues of free will and human agency. Is free will illusory and are people unable to alter their fates? If we step back and look at sufferers’ lives, is anyone really to blame for their mistakes?  Perhaps something in their backgrounds or constitutions doomed them to make those mistakes and to be unable to control their reactions.

Another way the questions could be misguided is that there may be no good way to measure suffering and no way to quantify the proportion due to various causes.

Yet another problem is that the questions can be used to shirk responsibility.  Spiritual leaders and psychotherapists often stress that we must take responsibility for our problems. We need to stop blaming others, stop playing victim, stop wallowing in self-pity, and stop looking outside ourselves for help.  Only then can we pull ourselves up and move forward with life.

There is much practical value in taking responsibility for one’s problems.

Still, a clear-eyed examination suggests that many people are not responsible for much of their own suffering.  Many people have such severe trauma, faulty brain chemistry, or other deficits that they are doomed to great suffering.

Alternatively, having made particularly unwise choices at one time in the past — for example, the choice to indulge in addictive drugs or to trust the wrong person — they are helpless to deal with the consequences.  Are they to blame? Yes, because they made those choices.  But they are now largely powerless to change their situation.  The wounds takes long to heal.

Perhaps their suffering is partly or largely due to their own reactions. They’ve lost faith in themselves. They indulge in self-pity and blame. They obsess about their tormentors. The more energy and time they waste on the obsession, the more they validate their suffering. They become their own tormentors, unable to forgive themselves for being in a bad mood.

When we obsess over the injustice and are unable to let it go, we accentuate our own suffering. This is why forgiveness is valued. It doesn’t necessarily help the tormentor, but it frees the victim.

It seems we need to be judgmental and strict about ourselves, refusing to blame others for our problems, but we should be sympathetic with others’ suffering.

Perhaps there is value in acknowledging the ways in which we really are innocent victims. Then we can stop blaming ourselves and stop struggling to change what can’t be changed.

A final way in which these questions may be misguided is that they assume suffering is bad. But some suffering is healthy and motivating.  It’s often a normal reaction to injustice.  It’s often a motivation for us to change and to grow. In “The Triple Package” Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld describe how insecurity is one of the psychological traits that drive many successful people and groups to thrive.

As we pursue our investigation into human suffering we need to keep in mind these doubts about the legitimacy and limitations of our questions.

Examples of suffering beyond our control

At one extreme are the true victims, whom only a heartless scold would accuse of being responsible for their own suffering.

For example, some people are raped and tortured. Some people survive war or ethnic cleansing.   Some people are dealt a bad hand genetically — born with physical or mental deficits, or with serious psychiatric disturbances such as schizophrenia.  Some kids are born as  crack babies.  Some people are stuck in crushing poverty, victims of cruel landholders, corporations, or governments.  It’s heartless to suggest that such people are mostly responsible for their suffering. They deserve our support and sympathy, not our judgement.

Some people suffer horrendous physical and emotional abuse at the hands of parents or other caregivers.

Some children are born to uneducated, unemployed parents who abuse drugs, neglect them, and fail to instill discipline and a love of learning.

Not only do victims suffer while the causes act on them; they often continue to suffer for years afterwards. Physical and emotional wounds can run deep.

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are traumatized so badly that they are hyper-vigilant and fearful. Their brain chemistry, nervous system, and mental programming become altered. Particular gene networks get activated. Even if their behavior contributed to their suffering, their condition makes it very difficult to recover.

African Americans who were slaves or the descendants of slaves are at an extreme disadvantage and, depending on the exact circumstances, may be victims of forces beyond their control.

For some such people, we might say they are only 10% responsible for their own suffering.

Granted, some people recover from horrific experiences, or a bad genetic inheritance, and are able to thrive. But many victims don’t. Only a heartless scold would blame the victims in general.

Examples of self-created suffering

Neurotic worry, laziness, whining self-pity, victim mentality, jealousy, paralyzing fearfulness, greed, vengefulness, and gullibility are causes of self-created suffering.

A friend said that he caused himself much suffering and he wasted ten years of his life by trying to salvage a doomed marriage. Later he refused to listen to the advice of a doctor about taking his time to recover from an injury.

Another friend got involved in a religious cult years ago and still hasn’t recovered from the emotional trauma, feeling rejected and inferior. Though she knows her response is irrational, she struggles to extricate herself.

People who were bulled when they were children often carry a heavy burden of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. Sexual abuse victims are similar.

Borderline cases

Many cases are unclear. Some people wallow in self-pity, resentment and regret, rather than getting on with life. In some cases this seems to be their choice. In other cases, they seem incapable of choosing otherwise — they have a mental illness that incapacitates them — and should perhaps be categorized as true victims.

Addictions involve some element of choice, but having made some bad choices, people seem to lose control of their lives and become slaves to their addictions.

The case of people with borderline personality disorders is an interesting one. Their suffering is real, but they are neurotic, manipulative, and vengeful.  They seem partly responsible for their suffering. Indeed, they are on the borderline between being victims and self-saboteurs.

Informal survey

I asked friends what proportion of suffering is self-created.  One friend said 90%. When I pointed out some examples and asked him to reconsider he admitted that 90% was high.    Another friend wagered 50%.



Of course, even such luckless people need to move on and learn to stop being victims.   But in this article I am not interested directly in the question of how to recover from suffering. The questions I want to examine are more scientific or objective:  What proportion of human suffering is caused by others?  And how much suffering is self-generated?

If we understand the answers to these questions, we’ll better be able to stop torturing ourselves for being unable to be happy.  Many people struggle for years to lift themselves out of the muck. What makes them succeed?

At the other extreme from the true victims are the neurotic whiners who, despite numerous opportunities and advantages, wallow in self-pity, resentment, and fear. Such people are blessed with all sorts of benefits — natural intelligence; wealthy, loving parents; the chance for a good education; good looks; or good health, for example — but they still suffer emotionally.  They’re neurotic.  They accentuate the negative.  They make bad choices. They don’t study in school.   They choose bad friends.  They’re lazy.  They are fired from jobs or get dumped by their lovers.  They become depressed or are filled with fear, anxiety, loneliness, anger, resentment, and self-doubt.  They turn to drugs or crime.   In their pasts they suffered failures, rejections and betrayals and are unable to move beyond the hurt.  They whine and feel sorry for themselves. Such people are mostly responsible for their own suffering, it seems.

For some such people, we might say they are 90% responsible for their own suffering.

Most people are in the wide middle tier. They’re neither unfortunate victims nor entitled, neurotic whiners.

Most people are dealt a decent hand in life and suffer little abuse.  They’re not gifted but they’re not disadvantaged.


So, the question still remains:   if we step back and look backup upon an average individual’s life, how much of that person’s suffering was caused by their own mistakes and neuroses, and how much was due to external forces out of their control (e.g., their upbringing)?     Since the “average person” doesn’t exist, a better question is: what is the distribution of the causes of suffering?  That is, out of 1,000,000 people how many of them are responsible for 10% or less of their suffering?  Such people are truly victims of external forces. How many are responsible for between 10% and 20% of their suffering?  … How many people are responsible for 90% or more of their suffering?  Such people have mostly themselves to blame.

Do these question even have an answer?  Are the questions well-formulated?   It’s not clear.

There is biological evidence that health and psychological problems can be passed down generations:

Questions of free will….

Some cultures and religions emphasize community and familial responsibility for suffering.  Numbers 14:28 says

The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

America’s hyper-individualistic ideology encourages taking individual responsibility for one’s life. But that’s a cultural idiosyncrasy.  Many cultures are more communal (e.g., Japan).

It seems to me, that to forgive one needs to love oneself and believe in oneself first. One needs to stop believing what they said. Forgiveness isn’t primary. It’s an effect of self-love.
Self-love is needed before you can forgive,

The Dalai Lama said

We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us
so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid,
or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder.
We always have the choice.

Is it true?


Much suffering comes from the need to distinguish between accepting circumstances  that can’t be changed, and working your butt off to change what should be changed. People get stuck trying to change the past.