The Stigma of Emotional Pain

In the aftershock of my partner’s sudden exit from my life, I got a lot of suggestions from friends and family. I was advised to count my blessings that he was gone, to let go, to get over it and to move on as quickly as possible.

I was plied with well-meaning platitudes such as, “Men are like buses: One leaves and another pulls in,” or “Just be here now,” or “It is all good.” Forgiveness was advised by my spiritually-minded friends as the quick ticket to recovery and the best way to demonstrate my love. Just let go and forgive, and the pain, along with the accompanying bewilderment, angst and panic, would miraculously disappear—so I was told and believed myself.

No matter that I was walking down the street feeling as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, ready to check myself into the nearest psychiatric hospital, commit some unspeakable act of vengeance or wander in front of a passing car. If I could have forgiven I would have, but meanwhile I wanted to strangle anyone who suggested it.

All too often I was encouraged to get up, take a class, make new friends, volunteer, hike or practice more hot yoga. I had already tried most of those things, and was doing everything in my power to pull myself together, but nothing was working. I learned that complicated grief has its own timetable.

Emotional Pain Makes People Uneasy

Beyond the first few weeks, our society does not easily tolerant the pain and grief  that follow the severing of deep attachments. We give the bereaved a few months. A divorce or a precipitous breakup is most often excused and casually brushed aside, while infidelity has almost become a joke. Broken relationships have become so commonplace we never even think about the devastation involved, as we sweep the anguish of each story aside with a shrug.

In our happiness-obsessed, “Prozac nation,” we consider intense suffering an aberration or an indication of weakness. The anxiety, heartache, nausea, obsessing and grief that I experienced for more than two years coping with PTSD are examples of the kind of suffering we shunt to the catchall categories of depression or self-indulgence, and treat with drugs, if we treat them at all.

We acknowledge physical pain but talk little about the debilitation of emotional injuries and even stigmatize emotional and mental illness.  I am now convinced huge numbers of people silently endure protracted experiences of psychic pain. We dislike and shun people we judge to be “wallowing” in personal suffering, so we work hard to hide our own, making it more difficult to get the help we need to recover.

Why? Because emotional pain makes people uncomfortable. Those who have not faced the depths of their own pain—and so few of us have—are doubly afraid or ill at ease when they see another suffering. If someone asks how we are, convention dictates we are to say, “Fine, thanks!” Or, if we do feel inclined to make some kind of authentic response, we sense that we’d better make it short—no details, please.

Even those who know we must be hurting and want to help probably feel awkward and do not know what to say.  We all tend to be blind to the desolation of such life-transforming events—until we ourselves are mourning a loss. When one friend finally said, “I am so sorry this cruel thing happened to you. It must really hurt,” my heart melted with appreciation.

Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.

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