I wrote this for the Positive Vector website awhile back and lots of people have found it valuable, so I want to share it with the Less Wrong community as well. I think this applies to most people - meta suffering thing is something I see everywhere, even though it is most prominent with people who have depression. This is based on my experience with working with depressed people and with studying Buddhism, especially Big Mind. Enjoy!
The roots of suffering are often deep. But not all of the suffering happens at the root. A lot of the suffering that people experience is “meta” suffering. Meta suffering is when you suffer because you are distressed that you are suffering. You are feeling depressed and hopeless, and there is a part of you that genuinely fears that it will never end. That you will feel this way forever. This fear of the suffering persisting can cause you much more suffering than whatever started your suffering. And it can last much longer. At some point days later, you might think to yourself about how terrible that initial suffering was, and feel fear and suffering about the possibility of it coming back.
Many people suffer as much or more from meta-suffering than suffering that comes from physical or situational sources!
The good news is that meta suffering is much easier to fix than deeper forms of suffering.
One thing you can do is to collect data* in order to develop an accurate model of how often you actually feel bad. Try monitoring your moods for awhile and get a baseline for what your moods actually are. At least half of the people who have suffered from major depression who have done this and spoken with me about it have been surprised to find that they often feel better than their self-perception when they assess their mood at random points throughout the day.
Regardless of what your default mood state or range is, once you know what it is, you are likely to feel less fear. You can look at what your mood historically does over time, and feel more confidence that this is what it will do in the future. When you are in the state of despair and wondering if it will last forever, odds are that it won’t.
Another extremely powerful technique for dealing with meta-suffering is accepting that you are suffering. The meta suffering is suffering because you really want to change your state and are not successful. If you can just be with the state and not making yourself bad or wrong for being in that state, then all you have to deal with is the base state of suffering, which will be less intense and last less long than if you tack on that extra meta layer.
The ironic thing is that just by thinking that thought, if you are prone to depression, you will probably notice yourself meta suffering and then feel guilt or shame about it. If this happens, my advice is to take it to the next level – feel compassion and acceptance for your meta-meta-suffering.
As you make this a practice, and feel acceptance and compassion for your suffering, you will feel more freedom from the meta level, and have more resources to work with the underlying suffering or depression.
Another common way in which meta suffering sabotages people with depression is for them to feel depression as soon as they start feeling good. The story that some people have is that it is futile to think that they might feel so good in the future, and it is better not to get their hopes up and have them crushed. I encourage the person with this meta suffering story to assure the meta suffering part that they do not have obligation to feel good in the future. Feeling good in the present is of value, for however long it lasts, and that is worth appreciating and a good thing.
Desiring more pleasant states is great. Working to create those states is fabulous.
Feeling guilt, shame, depression, or other suffering because of not liking your current state or projected future state does not contribute to your feeling better, and is something that is pretty purely good to release.