- Brent Gleeson is an author and entrepreneur and was a member of SEAL Team 5.
- The following is an excerpt from his book, Embrace the Suck: The Navy Seal Way to an Extraordinary Life.
- In it, he discusses how to navigate pain and distress in a healthy way and use them to grow.
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In the early days of my entrepreneurial adventures, I felt a lot like Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest: adrift in uncharted waters; running low on supplies; safe return on investment doubtful; occasionally gnawing on raw seal meat. I’ll admit, it was very challenging and stressful. But it was also extremely fulfilling, because it was mine to own. It was suffering I chose once again. Startups have a similar failure rate as SEAL training, but I didn’t care. Because I’d already pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone beyond what I could have ever imagined, I knew that this path could be successful as well. Not without obstacles, anxiety, and failure, but ultimately successful.
So, it’s not just about being more thoughtful in choosing what you are willing to suffer for, but also how to engage in proper suffering. Almost every self-help book seems to be about how to be happy, how to be empowered and engage in positive self-talk, how to be in a fabulous relationship, how to build wealth . . . in other words, how to be anything other than the inevitable suffering human beings most of us are at some
point in our lives. But we all experience suffering, so why fight it? Better to embrace it, understand it, and learn to walk the path in harmony. Better to understand the steps we take to arrive at suffering and learn how to navigate these trying periods in our lives in a more healthy manner.
The Embrace the Suck model has five suffering practices that are backed by research to help you grow through times of struggle.
- Find safe relationships to process suffering. Suffering is meant to be dealt with in a relationship. We all need people to walk alongside us on the journey of suffering. We know from research and experience that social support plays a huge role in helping people cope with trials and eventually grow from them. You need people who provide a safe place for you to express your true feelings about your pain. Even though it’s difficult when you’re going through a hard time, you need to do your part in reaching out and being vulnerable. A deeper appreciation of vulnerability is one of the positive changes people tend to experience when they grow through suffering.
- Face and express your emotions. Once you find people to walk with you on this journey, you need to approach and express your emotions, rather than suppress and run from them. It’s commonly known that sharing your emotions related to suffering leads to positive outcomes. Conversely, research indicates that suppressing emotions leads to negative outcomes, like increased rates of anxiety and depression. You need emotionally safe relationships in order to do this. You have to trust that your vulnerable emotions will be handled with care and compassion. When you express your true emotions in the context of safe relationships, it sets in motion a series of positive processes. You connect more deeply to others, which is healing in itself. In addition, you begin to discover the meaning of your suffering in the context of your life story.
- Process the emotions of suffering all the way through. Once you start talking about and feeling the pain of your suffering, stay with the feelings until you get to the end of the emotional arc. This principle comes from what is sometimes called a functional theory of emotion, which suggests that emotions are fundamentally adaptive. Emotions are your automatic evaluation of the events in your life. They provide information that is crucial, and they orient you to what is important for your wellbeing. For example, sadness is adaptive because it helps you grieve a loss. Emotions have a natural arc, or progression, in terms of their intensity and clarity. As you begin to feel the impact of your trial, you may start off ruminating about the situation. It’s important that you don’t stop at this phase. You need to embrace your emotions more fully to experience their adaptive benefits. As you engage in this process with people you trust and continue the arc of the feeling, the meaning becomes clearer, and there is a sense of relief as you experience the full measure of your own emotional truth.
- Reflect on and reorder your priorities. Trials have a way of making you rethink your priorities in life. This can help you grow. But you must actively reflect on what is truly important to you and then be intentional about changing your routines, habits, and rhythms in ways that align with your revised priorities. That might mean spending more time with your spouse and kids and cherishing each present moment with them. It could mean accepting and even embracing your limitations. Maybe it’s leaving the next item on your to-do list undone when the time has come to do something else, and trusting that you will complete the work in order of priority. Or possibly it means finding your identity through relationships rather than accomplishments.
- Use your experiences of suffering to help others. Many people find an immense sense of meaning in helping others who’ve gone through similar trials. Even if others didn’t experience the same challenges as you, using your pain as the fuel for empathy and compassion for others is a way of redeeming your suffering. It helps you create meaning out of it. Many veterans suffering from PTSD find peace in serving fellow veterans. Research shows that volunteerism is one of the most powerful ways we can engage in our own healing. In the same way, this is a core reason grieving parents of fallen soldiers start foundations in their name. And frankly, that’s why I serve as a board member for the SEAL Family Foundation as well as mentor young men into and through the SEAL training program. So, get off your ass and go find a cause greater than yourself. Trust me, you’ll never regret it.
Great, so what now?
Whether the pain and emotional obstacles we experience are chosen or dealt to us, practicing purposeful suffering undoubtedly leads to a better life. It’s no different for elite athletes, successful entrepreneurs, or anyone who has chosen to expand their comfort zone in pursuit of something they are passionate about. It’s a willingness we all have if we just tap into it. If you just embrace the suck and the good problems that will undoubtedly follow, you’ll eventually find greatness – whatever your definition of that is. Challenge yourself to identify both the suffering you have chosen, the suffering you haven’t, and the meaning in it all. Consider how you can derive positive benefits from your most arduous and painful times. What perspective could be gained and applied to transforming your mind?
Excerpted from Embrace the Suck: The Navy Seal Way to an Extraordinary Life by Brent Gleeson. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Brent Gleeson was a member of SEAL Team 5, some of the first SEALs deployed to Iraq in early 2003. He completed combat deployments in Iraq, Africa, and other theaters of war. He is the author of TakingPoint and has starred in several reality shows including Mark Burnett’s ‘Stars Earn Stripes.’