Is Suffering A Private Matter?

I originally posted this entry on 16 February 2011 at AgileLiving.net. The responses are still with the original post.

This question has been on my mind a lot over the past 5 months as I make daily decisions about how much I want to share about my personal life these days. I’ve had a lot of people express interest in hearing how we’re recovering and what we’re learning along the way, but I haven’t decided to what degree I’ll share about our journey through this blog and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Obviously we all have the right to decide how much we wish to share about our own experiences and sources of suffering, so I’m not questioning whether that right should exist. And if you’re someone who keeps your suffering private, I hope you can see that I understand why and I’m not judging your choice.

But, knowing that we all have a right (and responsibility) to decide for ourselves how much we want to share and who we want to share it with when we’re going through a tough time, I’m interested in how we make those decisions – especially since the interconnected online world has such a strong leaning towards “authenticity” and “radical transparency.” Sharing intimate details about your life is easy when all is well, but it’s fraught with anxiety (for both you and the people you share with) when you’re suffering.

Grief needs to be expressed in some way – either privately or with witnesses, in order to heal.

Managing that personal/ social line in expressing our grief has been a big part of the challenge in our recovery. As much as experiences like losing your baby are a deeply personal thing, there’s no denying that it’s had a HUGE impact on our social lives. When you get pregnant, you suddenly get invited into “the parent club” and people treat you very differently. You start getting used to other people seeing you differently and you even start seeing yourself differently. And then you lose your baby and discover that the risks of a second pregnancy are greater than what you’re willing to take on, and suddenly the parent club doesn’t know what to do with you. Are you a member or not? Should you be invited to the baby shower or not? Should they ask or talk about your baby or not? Should they hide their children when you’re around or not? It’s the same with other types of loss – divorce, failed business, death of a loved one, and so on.

As we’ve negotiated that personal/ social line, we’ve had a variety of different reactions – some expected and some surprising. Sometimes we’ve shared and it’s been the most healing and connecting experience and enriched our relationship with the person we shared with. And other times we’ve realized that perhaps we over-shared and the person or relationship didn’t have the capacity to see and hear what we shared.

These experiences have got Andy and I thinking and talking a lot about whether suffering is a private matter and when it is or isn’t appropriate to let your suffering be witnessed. Being the people that we are, we’ve also chatted to a lot of our friends and family about their thoughts on this. These are the different perspectives we’ve found so far:

Some people say that suffering is a private matter because…

It’s important to avoid embarrassment and rejection by your tribe

I come from a fairly well-behaved, buttoned-up family that has a lot of social anxiety. The unspoken rule was that embarrassment is the worst emotion and you should do everything you can to make sure that you avoid embarrassment. Naturally, this trained me to keep a lot to myself – you’re safer from judgment if people don’t know what you’re thinking and feeling.

Through my work I’ve learned that this wasn’t something entirely special to my family. Everyone who’s healthy has some fears relating to being judged by other people. We’re a tribal species that’s biologically wired to be a part of a group, and therefore to be sensitive to group norms and the factors that could lead to rejection by the group.

Suffering is often linked to some sense of failure and therefore associated with judgment and shame. It’s natural for our human minds to go searching for “causes” when something goes wrong, and it’s natural to fear that people might apportion some sort of blame on you, for the thing that didn’t go well and caused people pain.

Then there’s the social norms around grieving. We’re all brought up with rules and social norms on how to handle pain. There’s the stiff-upper-lip crew, the big-boys-don’t-cry crew, the it’s-okay-to-cry… if-you’re-a-woman crew, the crying-is-okay-but-anger-is-inappropriate crew, the have-a-good-cry-and-then-move-on crew, the mourn-for-the-rest-of-your-life-to-prove-your-love crew, and so on. It’s especially tricky when, despite your upbringing, you grieve differently to your other family members or your close friends.

Probably the biggest thing that I’ve seen get people stuck in their grieving process (and cause deeper, longer-lasting pain!) is when people feel judged about the way they naturally want to grieve and then try to grieve in a way that pleases others rather than what feels natural and right for them.

But I’ve felt it too. When people know that you’ve had a major tragedy in your life, they watch you closely in their shock and awe (and fear of their own vulnerability), in much the same way that they crane their necks at motor vehicle accident scenes. You become a fascination. It’s easy to forget our uniqueness, to expect other people to feel and act the way we would, and to covertly or overtly judge the way they’re handling their grief. So I can understand why some people choose to just keep their grieving to themselves to protect themselves from being seen, judged or rejected.

It’s important to protect the parts of yourself that are most vulnerable

Andy and I recently attended a group workshop with other parents who’ve had a hard time with becoming a parent and when the subject of how we’re dealing with infertility and/or loss was brought up, everyone else said things along the lines of, “It’s a private matter. We keep it to ourselves and deal with it just the two of us,” or, “We regret telling other people about it. We’ll keep it to ourselves in future because it’s such an important and painful matter.”

From the group discussion, it appeared that their criteria for deciding what to share has something to do with: “How painful is the matter?” and “How important is the matter?” The more painful and important the matter, the more likely we’ll keep it private. Again, this makes sense. We instinctively want to protect the vulnerable parts of ourselves – especially the parts that are closest to our hearts and in most pain, but the other side is that it means that we’re avoiding sharing what’s most important to us with each other.

It’s important to protect other people from pain

In conversation with a friend recently, my friend said that he thinks it’s best not to tell other people if you’re pregnant until after the first trimester, because you want to protect them from possible disappointment.

Maybe I’m selfish, but if I’m honest, I’m more concerned about my own pain than other people’s pain – especially in a situation like this where I’m more directly affected by the sad event than they are. Or maybe I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who don’t freak out and can handle seeing us in pain.

Perhaps his greatest concern really was to protect other people from the pain of seeing him suffer, or perhaps the real concern was protecting himself from the pain of other people seeing him suffer and judging him. Or maybe both. I dunno.

But it does highlight a common thought about suffering – that pain is ugly and uncomfortable and the polite and kind thing to do with it is to keep it to yourself so that other people don’t have to be exposed to it. I think this is often the underlying motivation when we suggest to friends or family that they should go to confidential counseling, instead of just being with them and letting them share openly with us.

It’s important to take your pain to “professionals” who know how to deal with it

In the world of professional one-to-one counseling, suffering is a private matter. I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances ask me if we’re going for counseling after Juggernaut died. And Andy’s company has generously offered us paid-for counseling. We haven’t taken up any offers of formal counseling yet and I’ve told folks who ask about it that we feel like we’re getting all the “counseling” we might need through open conversations with each other and our friends and family.

Reactions to this have been interesting – probably the most common reactions have been, “But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to share with someone who’s not a part of your life and kind of anonymous?” and “But surely it’s better to get professional advice.”

Maybe it is better to take your pain to professionals. There certainly is a context for this. But as a professional who’s done a lot of grief counseling through the years, I know that there’s very little “advice-giving” when it comes to supporting someone who’s grieving, because grieving is such a unique process. The most important advice is to listen to your own needs and do it your way.

I do wonder whether the “take it to the professionals” stance is more about our fears of being judged by others, or the need to believe that there’s a professional out there who can give us the elusive answers and sense of control that we long for when we’re grieving. The irony is that you have to face the loss of the illusion of certainty and everything you thought you knew as part of your grieving process, and nobody can “give you back control,” because by definition, if they do, it’s them who are in control and not you. And I’ve always worried that “confidential” professional counseling serves to reinforce the shame and stigma that’s often associated with grieving (which is one of the reasons why I think group counseling can be a much better vehicle for healing through loss).

During grieving, it’s important to tune out external influences and tune into your own inner wisdom

As I said before, grieving is an incredibly unique process and one of the most common ways that people get stuck in their grieving is when they feel like they’re not “doing it right.” Privacy during periods of suffering decreases the amount of advice and consequent self-judgment that you’ll experience, which can make it easier to tune into your own inner wisdom and self-healing capacities. There’s a lot of research suggesting that addiction recovery rates are higher for people who do it alone than for people who attend programs and Bonanno, in his book, “The Other Side of Sadness,” highlights a surprising amount of evidence that the majority of people easily heal from major grief and trauma without professional help.

This makes a lot of sense to me. As per Martha Beck’s change model, during square 1 of change, when there’s often a lot of grieving going on, Beck recommends that we follow our natural tendency to withdraw socially, and use the opportunity to tune into our own quiet inner voice. It really helped me to relax into my own healing when I unsubscribed from all blogs/ newsletters. In doing that, and spending less time on social networks, I cut off that incoming advice and “shoulding,” and I gave myself less opportunity to compare myself to others (afterall, the picture that most people put up on Facebook, etc is only their best side, right?)

Square 2 in the change cycle, when the vision and plan for moving forward comes together, is better-suited for opening up the communication channels again so that you can receive information and advice from other people as you research and construct your new vision.

It’s important not to focus on your suffering in a public way because what you focus on grows

Then there’s the world of coaching and personal development. Many people in this world believe that what you focus on grows and that you attract what you’re thinking and talking about. What you focus on does grow, in the sense that we learn by practicing firing neural circuits and the more you practice a particular thought, the more you strengthen that circuit and create it as a habit. I also believe that our perception works in such a way that we’re always deleting some information from our awareness, because we can’t take in all the information around us consciously. What you focus on, and your core beliefs about the way the world is and what you expect to find in the world are all things that shape how we filter the information around us.

And of course, from a personal branding point of view, if you’re always talking about your grieving, you’re going to get known as “that grieving person.” Is that a personal brand you want to establish and affirm? I bought www.stillbirthisstillbirth.com with the idea that I’d possibly use it to blog about my recovery journey, but I haven’t done anything with it yet, mostly because I don’t want to brand myself as “the coach whose baby died.” Yes, that’s a very important part of who I am now, but I’m more than that.

When you share your suffering with others, they often look to empathize by affirming how you feel and by expecting you to feel pain and other negative thoughts and feelings. This is useful up to a point, but it can also serve to help you to focus on and practice the experience of suffering, which can reinforce your story and identity as someone who is suffering. Some people feel that they’ll be more able to move on and feel how they want to feel and be the person they want to be if they don’t tell other people about their suffering.

Yikes! That’s a lot of strong arguments for keeping your suffering private!

On the other hand, some people say that suffering can be more easily negotiated when it’s out in the open because:

Keeping your suffering private engenders self-judgment, shame, loneliness and pain

When we suffer in private, we’re often treating our suffering as though it’s a shameful thing. Sure, we might protect ourselves from judgment to some extent, but people may still judge you for retreating and dealing with your pain in private. And the act of actively protecting yourself from judgment usually serves to reinforce the sense of feeling judged! By making the decision to keep your pain private, you might unconsciously be affirming the idea that your pain, and the way you’re reacting to it, is not okay – that it’s a shameful thing.

Brene Brown is a vulnerability researcher and from her research in this field, she believes that shame is one of the most destructive forces in the world and that connection and sharing in a compassionate context are the medicine that transforms shame into strength and love. I’ve worked with many people who were really struggling with recovering from trauma or grief, and the most common source of stuckness is shame and the resulting loneliness that settles in. Once the shame and loneliness sets in, our resilience is greatly reduced and our hearts and minds become a haven for painful interpretations of everything that life offers us.

Sharing your suffering brings people together

I really believe that the vast majority of people want to live a life of contribution and love – that’s certainly what the evidence of our past 6 months indicates! But if we’re all keeping our suffering private, how will we know where and how we can help each other? People can only support you if they know what you’re going through.

Being real about your fears, vulnerabilities and losses makes it easier for people with similar experiences to find you, opens the door for others to help you, and increases other people’s confidence about reaching out to you when you’re going through a difficult time. All of this brings people together and builds stronger, more fulfilling relationships that will enrich your life and increase your resilience through good times and bad.

Sharing your suffering facilitates healing

My personal experience is that, more than anything else, connection and compassion heals. There’s healing that can’t take place without bringing your pain into the light, without allowing all parts of yourself to be seen and acknowledged. I’ve learned a lot of different “change techniques” and I’ve seen a lot of different people employ those “change techniques” in different ways and I honestly think that it’s not the “change techniques” that heal us. It’s the compassionate connection between two people that’s healing. The “change techniques” are often little more than something to keep our conscious minds busy while we connect, to provide a direction for our intention and to provide a convincer for our rational minds that some “procedure” has taken place and therefore change is taking place.

Usually a professional therapist would offer you this sort of healing non-judgmental relationship, but if you have the kind of people in your everyday life who are willing and able to see your pain in it’s fullness and be with you through it, my experience is that your interactions with those everyday people will offer far greater healing than any professional therapist can ever offer you.

Sharing your suffering promotes resilience – in yourself and others

When we share our suffering, we all learn more about dealing with the problem that caused our suffering. We can share ideas for problem-solving and over time we build our communal knowledge and ability to respond to a greater variety of problems and challenges.

What’s more, when we’re totally real with each other and share both the good times and the bad times, we build strong, dependable relationships and a solid support network that we can call on when the shit hits the fan.

There are more arguments for keeping your suffering private, but the benefits of sharing your suffering with empathic people are incredibly powerful! It’s scary to share about our suffering, but I don’t want to miss out on such powerful benefits and opportunities for healing!

Over to you… what’s your take? How do you decide what to share and who to share it with?

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