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Our society has a made-up, bullsh*t hierarchy for everything in this world—for jobs, for people, for sports, for hobbies.
It also has a hierarchy for pain, which dictates to us what kind of pain we get to process and talk about, and what kind we should keep to ourselves.
Top-tier pains are the ones we can see, hear, or touch. These are the ones that turn our lives upside down. The ones society makes room for us to talk about and empathize with, and the ones that no one really expects us to “get over.”
Middle-tier pains are those that we are given a certain length of time to talk about, but after that, we’ve got to let it go. They’ve changed our lives, but we’re adaptable, right? So, we adapt. After all, it’s not as bad as xyz.
And then there are the bottom-tier pains, the largely invisible ones. The ones for which the outer impact on our lives is minimal. The ones for which others are quick to say, “Just move on.” Many of our daily pains and losses are of this invisible, bottom-tier variety. They leave no physical bruises but create internal scarring. They quietly lie, waiting for a time to activate—which they do when we find ourselves in a similar circumstance or around similar energy.
Why have we categorized pain in such a way? Why do we put imaginary timelines and conditions on pain—depending on how long ago it happened, what physical damage we endured, or, perhaps, in comparison to how someone else has moved through a similar pain?
Why does the public acknowledge the pain of losing a child in an accident, but those who lose a child in the womb are told to quietly move on?
Why is the loss of a marriage something people are ready to make space for, but not the loss of a friendship or a relationship that didn’t involve legal papers?
Why are we so good at rehabilitating physical pain and so horrible at rehabilitating emotional pain?
The answer is that this is how we’ve been conditioned to deal with pain from childhood.
Many of us grew up in homes where we weren’t allowed to express our feelings. We were loved, but our parents didn’t have time or the skillset to help us manage our emotions. Stoicism was the name of the game.
So, we grew up learning to endure the pain we were not allowed to feel. Our parents taught us the same thing society did: be strong. We were expected to modify our behavior and ignore our pain. This kind of strength was seen as a virtue. But this “strength” isn’t strength at all. It is a burial, and it will come to the surface later.
Suffering in silence is a malady in our culture.
“This isn’t a big deal; he’s not the right fit. Get back online and meet someone else,” my friend advised me after a dating rejection.
I remember the metal slats of my living room table, cold against my feet, as a sense of vertigo overcame me. As my head grew dizzy and my feet cold, as I tried to make her understand that although it was “just” a few dates with this man, the sting of rejection was painful.
I explained to my friend that it wasn’t about him, per se; it was about the 17 other times it had happened in the last two months. My heart hurt, my nervous system detected a lack of safety, and I was agitated and amplified. I felt like I was 12 again.
The socially acceptable response to my pain was to feel nothing, to say nothing. Instead, I was to focus on the positive, take away a lesson, improve something and meet someone new, and remind myself of the positive: “It only takes one,” or “He didn’t deserve me.”
If I couldn’t, I was going to be deemed as “whining,” or “overreacting,” or “dramatic.”
A friend of mine recently told me about a car accident she was in, wherein the car rolled onto its side and she hung, suspended in her seatbelt, until help arrived.
She was luckily able to walk away without much more than bruises.
And yet, what she shared took my breath away: “I almost wish I were hurt more obviously so that I could talk about it more often.”
I felt exactly what she meant. I’ve been there myself with the losses that society doesn’t often recognize as losses. She meant that because her pain was mostly invisible and is now several years behind her, she didn’t feel she could talk about it anymore without people wondering if she just “wanted attention.” She meant that if she’d at least broken a leg, people would give her more space and time to talk about it or have anxiety from it.
In our society, small relationships are disregarded and considered to cause no pain and do no damage.
With our friends and families, we try to diminish our pain so as not to be perceived as weak, over-emotional, or self-absorbed.
In self-help circles, we are often encouraged to be “vulnerable,” but not to the point of potentially making others uncomfortable. We’re allowed to share emotions, but only for a “reasonable” amount of time.
We fear being a burden, being “too much,” or being perceived as weak. So, we bury our feelings and tell others that we’re fine. Meanwhile, we’re living in denial of our authenticity and fleeing the truths of the present moment.
As we repress, condense, and hide, we are being traumatized. Not childhood trauma (or Big T trauma), but rather the trauma of unmetabolized pain. We are not allowing ourselves to be authentic or to express our truest selves. And one of the two needs our souls have in this lifetime is authenticity. When we choose social acceptance over authenticity, we hurt ourselves and add traumas that change our behavior, create coping mechanisms, and lead to triggers.
The only way we can move through this pain is to process it: to be in the present moment and feel what we feel. If we try to hold on, it stagnates and marinates inside us.
Feeling and processing pain means moving it through our system and being rid of it. As pain moves out, it becomes smaller and less powerful. Over time, its impact and influence on us lessen.
It is up to us to break through this societal conditioning and end the stigmas that tell us that our pain must jump through hoops before we recognize it, or that it must be yea high or yea deep before we honor it.
We do this by:
>> Pointing out and naming this conditioning in ourselves and others while removing the false timelines and expectations.
>> Allowing ourselves to bear the cost of social burden and potential loss of attachment to move the pain through our system.
>> Talking about our pain with others—no matter if it’s the first time or the thousandth.
>> Finding an empathetic, abiding presence who can witness our experience and hear us and validate what has happened.
>> Accepting and validating our pain, no matter its size or origins.
We can set down the baggage and do what we could never do as children: feel our feelings, process our pain, and embrace our experience of wholeness. We can break the conditioning, eliminate the stigmas, and demolish the hierarchies.
We no longer need to suffer in silence with our invisible pain, but instead can help it move through by honoring it in whatever package—small or large, loud or quiet, common or uncommon—it comes in.