Reduce Your Suffering by Stepping Out of the Silence

We all face emotional suffering at some point throughout our lifetimes.  We have all experienced times of sadness, fear, worry, and loss, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a mental health disorder.  Experiencing emotional suffering is tough enough.  But many people add a whole new dimension to their suffering by keeping it silent, struggling in secret with shame.  And it is this silent, secretive suffering that causes even greater pain.  In solitude, the suffering actually feels bigger and often results in consequences to physical health and relationships.

There are many reasons why someone might keep their suffering private.  Understanding these reasons is an important step toward breaking the wall of silence to begin meaningful healing.

Understanding the Silence

But I have the perfect life.  Many people who struggle are aware that to the outside observer, their lives may appear perfect.  They have what appears to be a great family, good health, a stable job.  They believe they should be grateful and happy.  But they aren’t.  Perhaps they are experiencing clinical depression or intrusive thoughts that spark great fear.  Perhaps they are in a marriage that is unfulfilling or even abusive.  Perhaps they are awake late at night worried about a distressed child, sick parent, or friend with an addiction.  All of this burden is carried silently while maintaining the outward appearance that all is well.

Many people feel like they simply do not have a right to suffer.  They feel guilty for struggling.  So they try to give the appearance that they are happy on the outside while the inner world feels incredibly different.  This is exhausting.  This causes greater physical and emotional stress that is often manifested in symptoms such as pain, stomach issues, sleeplessness, weight gain, and fatigue.

I need to protect someone else.  Many people keep their struggles secret in order to protect someone else.  Perhaps they have a spouse who has been unfaithful and would risk a tarnished family image if others knew.  Perhaps they have a child with stigmatized emotional or behavioral issues.  Perhaps they are worried about a family member with an addiction.  Whatever the specific situation, there is always the fear that others will not understand the suffering and will pass unkind judgement.

We naturally want to protect the people we love from unkind judgement.  Yet the burden of carrying this other person’s secret comes at great personal sacrifice.  It is difficult to get the support and help needed when maintaining the secret is more important than anything else.  Over time, secret keeping often creates resentment and drives a wedge in the relationship.  Caretakers need their own network of support in order to be well and continue giving.

I should be over it by now.  We tend to have unspoken expectations for how long someone might “reasonably” suffer.  During times of major life transition or loss, we often allow ourselves and others a period of adjustment.  We expect to struggle for a while after a diagnosis of a major health condition or birth of a child or loss of a loved one.  Everyone has different ideas for how long is “reasonable” to expect the suffering to last.  But when this unspoken timeline has passed, there is often great shame in the continued struggle.

Many people grow up in a culture the values stoicism.  The message they receive about feelings is to hold it all in, push them deep down, and pretend like you’re strong.  So they act as if everything has been resolved, and they are just “fine” moving on.  They may ignore their own physical and emotional symptoms in order to maintain an image of being “fine” now.  But this avoidance of suffering gets in the way of real healing.  When unresolved feelings are denied, they end up resurfacing in unpredictable and usually inappropriate ways.  For example, repressed feelings of sadness or anxiety end up expressed as anger or irritability, blowing up at your spouse for small transgressions or episodes of road rate.  And this inaccurate expression of feelings creates even more difficulties.

People will think I’m crazy.  Many people keep their concerns quiet in order to avoid being seen as troubled or damaged.  It’s common to feel overwhelmed and frightened by our own inner thoughts at times.  The irony is that keeping these thoughts and feelings to ourselves often amplifies them.  The more shame we feel about our inner world, the more suffering we experience from isolation.

The thoughts we engage in while emotionally distressed are often distorted.  During the darkness of night when exhausted, stressed, and vulnerable we tend to have our most irrational and scary thoughts.  People often make the mistake of equating thoughts to reality.  They view their thoughts as evidence that something is seriously wrong.  The thoughts go something like this, “Because I have terrible thoughts about things that frighten or disgust me which makes me a terrible person.”  Wrong.  Or maybe it’s more like, “I feel so worthless that I must be a miserable human who can never feel better.”  Wrong.  Thoughts are not actions.  Thoughts are not reality.  Thoughts are ever changing and often distorted or at least heavily filtered by our feelings.  Unhelpful thoughts require careful challenging to develop more compassionate ways of coping.  Sharing these thoughts can dramatically decrease their power.

Stepping Out of the Silence

While there are many reasons people may struggle silently and alone, there is a way out.  The only way to begin reducing the added suffering of shame is to begin telling just one person.  There is research to support the health benefits of sharing an emotional burden with someone else.  This could be a close friend, family member, preacher, or therapist.  Sometimes it’s easier to start with someone you already know well if you trust this person will accept you without judgement.  Sometimes it’s easier to start with a stranger who feels safer because he/she is less entangled in your history and image.  Whomever you choose to begin with, it’s important to know that it likely won’t feel good or easy at first.

Beginning to open up with someone requires you to acknowledge the fears associated with disclosure.  You may need to challenge the reasoning behind why you have been keeping silent.  Acknowledge if any of the reasons listed above hit home for you.  It’s understandably frightening to let anyone else see your inner thoughts, fears, worries, and insecurities.  It feels risky to allow someone else into your inner emotional world.  And this is even more difficult when your inner world feels upsetting or uncomfortable.  Remind yourself that it takes great strength to allow yourself to be emotionally vulnerable.  And this is the first step toward meaningful healing.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.

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