In my work and research, I encounter many people who are suffering because of adversity, grief, loss and trauma. When I was working on my PhD thesis on young men who had lost friends to suicide and were trying to make sense of their suffering, I discovered The Soul in Anguish. This book challenged me as a suicide-loss survivor and teacher of psychological theory and approaches, interventions and counselling. I have had to rethink my perspective on suffering as always being homogenous, negative, pointless, as something to avoid or get through as quickly as possible using problem-focused and cognitive behavioural strategies.
This book taught me suffering is an individually unique experience and is an inevitable part of being human we can all connect to. Corbett helped me understand that suffering can lead to bitterness, rage, self-absorption, cynicism, and loss of direction. On the other hand, suffering can also shape our personality development, lead to reorganisation (of life, beliefs, and values), stimulate creativity, promote transformative growth such as greater empathy for others, appreciation of the ordinary, wisdom, self-knowledge, and spiritual development. I learnt suffering is transitional and liminal – it involves separation, transition, and reincorporation – and there are sacred cultural and other rituals that can help people work through suffering.
This book included chapters on different types of suffering (suffering from painful emotions, holding unpopular views, alienation, loneliness, hatred, poverty, grief, sorrow, cruelty, torture, illness), the positive and negative effects of suffering (effects on relationships, resistance to change, despair, self-destruction, suicide, loss of hope and faith) and helping others with suffering (having empathy, compassion, consolation, bearing witness and showing people their suffering matters).
Corbett offers great advice for therapists working with people who are suffering. He recommends working in a relational way to help people develop awareness, understanding and to make meaning. The book contains sound advice around listening, containing, and mirroring; bearing witness to suffering, providing a containing space for people to express feelings, develop realisations; helping people become attuned to and work through painful emotions (e.g., anger, guilt, shame, abandonment) and childhood experiences and fragmentation. At the heart of it is helping people find new connections, interpretations, and ways of being. His ideas about helping people surrender and develop radical acceptance are innovative.
This deeply philosophical but also practical book has given me insight into the many ways we can think about suffering, and the inspiration and courage to face my own suffering and that of others, and helped me think different and do different – now that I know better, I can start to do better.
Lecturer and suicide bereavement researcher, Te Puna Akopai/School of Education, Te Herenga Waka- Victoria University of Wellington. https://people.wgtn.ac.nz/Chris.Bowden
Corbett, Lionel. (2015). The soul in anguish: Psychotherapeutic approaches to suffering. Chiron Publications. ISBN: 978-1-63051-235-4.