International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology

Varieties of Suffering and Meaning: Clinical Implications

Louis Hoffman, Ph.D

Faculty and Director, Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal Psychology Specialization, Saybrook University

Janie Paige, B.A.

Saybrook University


Suffering is not something merely to be coped with; it holds important transformative power. Yet, it is important that suffering is not idealized or viewed as something that is, in itself, good. While suffering is not something to be sought, through embracing suffering that cannot be avoided, the suffering often can be transformed. Meaning is one of the most important constructs in working with suffering from an existential perspective. As Viktor Frankl (1946/1984) stated, “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning” (p. 117). Meaning does not necessarily take the suffering away, but it changes the way that individuals experience suffering. Not all forms of suffering are the same, nor are all forms of meaning the same. From a clinical perspective, the therapist works with clients to help them to explore the various realms and aspects of their suffering. However, without a good therapeutic relationship and a competent guide, the journey into suffering can cause harm instead of healing. Not all forms of meaning are able to help a client sustain through and transform the experience of suffering. Superficial or imposed meaning even by well-intentioned others often are not sustaining meanings. Therapists working with the client’s suffering need to be able to recognize the varieties of types of suffering as well as the varieties of types of meanings to help clients transform their experience of suffering.

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