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Do We Talk Too Much About Our Pain?

by S. RufusFebruary 22, 2019
Grow
woman comforting a friend

Milkos/Thinkstock

In a world of constant sharing—a debate about how much is too much.

Last night at an event I introduced myself to someone — an alleged peer — who looked at me as if I was composed entirely of bacteria.

Imagining what she saw, I wanted to say: Hey, I struggle with anxiety, which has been bad lately, so these basics are the best I can do.

I wondered: Should I print this message on cards to distribute as needed? Should I silkscreen it, in a funny font, on shirts?

Instead I stood there mutely for a split-second, then slipped away.

Today I read an interview in which Chris Hemsworth describes his anxiety after acting in Thor. I also read that Lady Gaga speaks frankly to youth groups about her PTSD. Selena Gomez recently thanked social-media subscribers for their support during her stay at a psychiatric center.

I thought: If such famous people can be honest, why can't I?

Is it an age thing? I come from a time when silence reigned.

For most of history, at any given moment, millions worldwide lived in ostensible closets. Sexuality, spirituality, mental or other illness and a thousand other factors that were reviled or considered criminal imprisoned them. Tragically, generations dwelt in what amounted to disguise, talking all day yet, regarding what really mattered, mute.

But now discussion, revelation and confession are in fashion.

Thanks largely to social media, where anyone can reveal nearly anything while choosing to remain anonymous — or not — and thanks too to celebrities who go public about their pain, closets are vanishing. Their former occupants stride free — sometimes struggling still, but feeling less alone and less ashamed.

Amidst this hard-won, long-awaited openness, we all feel welcomed, as our ancestors were not, to tell the whole wide world whatever troubles us. We can say Supermarkets trigger me! or I spent my lunch hour sobbing in the stairwell and strangers and friends will quite possibly say they feel, or felt, exactly the same way. Some might share tips for centering and grounding. Some might post anxiety memes.

And that's great. Right?

I've been debating this topic with friends. Real friends, not invisible ones.

I contend that, according to experts, retelling trauma — even only once, but the more the better — healingly helps traumatized people reframe and process their pasts. Also: If talk was worthless, therapy would hardly be a thriving industry.

My friends say moderation matters. They say yes, silence is deadly, so sufferers should speak up, seek help.

But they warn that truth-telling can become identity, transforming from an occasional strategy into a sense of self.

They ask: Do we want our pain to define us? Do we want to introduce and brand ourselves as suffering, sad, sick? Wouldn't that just immerse us deeper in darkness?

My friends ask: Has mental illness turned from a medieval mark of shame into a modern status symbol? Do some people seek attention — and social approval — by pretending to be ill?

They ask: How much should we discuss our pain, when and with whom? (Well, clearly not with them.) Can we draw lines between ensuring our own safety and using anxiety, depression and low self-esteem as convenient excuses for avoiding stuff?  

They ask: What if someday we feel recovered, cured — yet the foreverness of social media prevents our reinvention, forcing us to wear our "I Have Anxiety" T-shirts all our lives?

They ask: Does gaining a sense of belonging and team membership so raise our self-esteem that — consciously or not — we embellish our illness and exaggerate our sufferings in order to feel ever more included, ever more approved? Could this subconsciously convince us not to heal?

They ask: At some point, does identifying as sick keep us sick?

Again: This is a real debate I'm having with real friends. I'm not making this up. They are demonstrably intelligent. I tend to defend talking about troubles as a healing tool. Yet here I am, cornered between hope and hard-wired self-hatred, hearing them.

But I wonder: What do you think?


S. Rufus is the author — under the byline Anneli Rufus — of several books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself (Tarcher Penguin 2014) and continues on the path of addressing self-esteem.


This entry is tagged with:
PainStorytellingSelf-Esteem

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