Making Idols of Pain

Yesterday a friend emailed me and four other girlfriends to tell us that a member of her immediate family has been homeless for years. For a long time she had tried to pretend this part of her life didn’t exist, but she was finally ready to talk about it and decided that “coming out” to a supportive network would be a good place to start.

After that, the floodgates opened.

I shared the story of my sister who is suffering from drug addiction and the heartbreak of her kids rotating in and out of foster care. Another woman opened up about experiencing sexual abuse as a child, and yet another shared her experience of dealing with a parent suffering from severe mental illness.

Five people on an email thread and four of them had been through something deeply painful yet unspoken to that point. What interested me about the discussion, however, wasn’t that we had all experienced different forms of emotional and physical distress – it’s that it wasn’t a raw, open wound for any of us.

Why not?

As a coach, I’ve worked with dozens of clients over the years and witnessed wildly varying degrees of resilience up close. I’ve seen women – so far I’ve only coached women – who were able to emerge from their dark nights as whole beings, and others who wander through each day as delicate shells.

There are obviously many different reasons for this, but I did notice a pattern in my small circle of colleagues. Specifically, those who stayed stuck had a tendency to make idols of their pain. In other words, they became so enamored with their own suffering as a source of attention and as an excuse to stay stuck, that they had no motivation to heal.

This is difficult to write because it sounds insensitive. Accordingly, please know that I’m not recommending we stay silent on issues that affect us, nor am I advocating a tough love strategy for those who are hurting.

This post isn’t about how to save another person, it’s about noticing something in our culture that blocks us from saving ourselves. 

As an example, recently I was having breakfast with a friend who is the marketing director for a major publishing house. When I asked him what kind of proposals they were receiving from authors lately, he didn’t hesitate for a moment before saying, “A ton of women in pain. You wouldn’t believe it.”

But I do believe it.

As a female blogger, my niche seems confined to selling fashion or vulnerability. Both of these are fine if seen as pieces of who we are versus the definition of who we are. We stay stuck when we get this confused.

I’m not offering a solution – partly because I lost interest in “here-are-your-three-steps” posts long ago – but also because I truly believe sharing is valuable. As I experienced on the email thread yesterday, there’s a locked-arms “all in this together” quality to it that is genuinely beautiful.

What I am interested in, however, is pointing at the elephant in the room and asking you to look at it. Do we glamorize suffering in a way that not only prevents our healing, but prevents us from helping others? After all, if we can’t see past our own pain, how could we possibly see anyone else’s?

You may disagree with me but at least the act of disagreeing will force you to have an opinion. Because the real danger isn’t thinking critically about this issue, it’s not thinking about it at all.