Why I think we need to stop glorifying people who “suffer in silence”

There’s a not-so-subtle implication in our culture that the people who struggle with chronic illness, chronic pain, or major mental health issues are worthy of more respect if they are willing to keep their mouths shut about their experiences. People who talk openly and regularly about painful life experiences are seen as “playing the victim card” and I think this belief is not only toxic but very dangerous to the sufferer. 

Many of us have heard or even said things like “I get that so-and-so is chronically ill, but my friend over here also has that same problem and doesn’t feel the need to talk about it all the time.” Or “I know a lot of people who have experienced what you’re experiencing too, but they don’t post all over Facebook about it the way you do.” These little implications that people who suffer in silence are saintly and people who speak openly about their struggles are attention seeking not only creates greater isolation but contributes to the stigmas that trap millions of people across the country in unnecessary pain.

Even as someone who is very open about her struggles, I have found myself falling into the same trap. Like because I have experienced similar pain and don’t always share Facebook posts about it, someone else should be able to keep their mouth shut too. Without even meaning to, I have communicated the idea that people who suffer quietly are suffering better than those speak openly about their lives.

Are there people in the world who just like attention? Absolutely. For that matter, are each and every one of us capable of using our experiences to get attention? Definitely. It’s part of human nature. But subtly putting down those who talk openly about their pain by glorifying people who stoically – or “heroically” – suffer in silence is only a recipe for disaster. Here’s why.

Teaching people – especially women – that suffering in silence is a sign of maturity keeps them isolated from people and institutions that could actually provide relief. Suffering in silence doesn’t make you a saint. It just makes you alone.

All over the Internet (and all over the country) support groups are popping up for women who experience postpartum depression. That discussion has become much more open, more acceptably mainstream. Now a new mom can join a Facebook group for other women who are experiencing similar struggles and know that they are not alone, that they are not crazy, and that help is available. Not that long ago, brand-new mothers who were taught, either directly or indirectly, that maturity mean stoicism in suffering, would have been isolated and alone, battling demons without any support.

People with chronic illnesses and chronic pain feel this too. I’ve lost track of the number of times a server at a restaurant didn’t take my request for a gluten-free option seriously. I once had a waitress tell me, after poisoning me through casual negligence, that she thought it was “just a fad” and that I “probably wouldn’t even notice” that she had given me the gluten option. This sort of thing happens frequently, and is a direct result of the cultural pressure to suffer in silence. Actual celiac people are taught to keep their mouths shut about our experiences, but women jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon are welcome to be loud about their voluntary diet. Ergo, being “gluten-free” is, unsurprisingly, often still seen as an optional trend. 

“Spoonies” (a term used to describe people with chronic illness who struggle to maintain the resources to get through the day) are often punished in the public sphere for talking “too much” about dramatic mental and physical health issues that impact their lives on a daily basis. Marginalizing groups like this and subtly punishing people for speaking up about their issues has created a taboo out of something that millions of people across the world do not have option to opt out of. “You can suffer every day, just don’t put it in our faces” is the subtext behind criticizing someone for “talking too much” about their illness or pain.

Grief is another big issue on this topic. People experiencing dramatic loss and overwhelming pain as a result of that loss are expected to “get over it” in a certain amount of time. Cutting short the amount of time necessary to work through dramatic loss as not only damaging to a person who is in mourning but also communicates that we as a culture have little patience for people who are not willing to claw their way back to an image of  normalcy and soldier on so the rest of us can feel comfortable scrolling through our Facebook newsfeeds.

Every time I come across a blog, a Facebook group, or even just a circulating meme that normalizes what millions of people experience every day and are expected to hide or mute for others’ comfort, my heart lifts a little bit. I feel that as a culture we are finally beginning to shift into the realization that “toughing it out in silence” is a horribly damaging concept, and that compassion and active listening can bring positive change.

Wallowing generally helps no one. Complaining for the sake of complaining, and digging deep into misery is only only going to cause more harm than good. That’s real. But I’m grateful that as a culture we are finally beginning to see that people who speak openly about their struggles are not necessarily doing so for attention, but perhaps attempting bring to light something that affects them on a daily or hourly basis.

And for those of us who have judged people in the past for being honest and open about the negative aspects of their lives, maybe it’s time to re-check our compassion levels. It’s worth asking ourselves whether or not we are contributing to the stigmatization or isolation of people who truly need help by expecting them to suffer quietly.

So let’s keep talking about it. Let’s keep writing blog posts about what it’s like to live with a struggle, to fight through depression, to exist in a fog, to work through grief, or to keep moving through pain. Let’s normalize the idea that suffering in silence doesn’t make you a saint. And in doing so, let’s continue to create safety for others to step out of isolation and find community and help.

For more information about how suffering in silence can be a damaging decision, here’s a pretty great article on the topic from Psychology Today.