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6 Types of Pain That Too Few People Take Seriously

What types of pain does society have low empathy for?

Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock
Source: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock

My colleague, Dr. Guy Winch, has a new book out (and an accompanying TED talk) about how to cope with heartbreak. The book specifically tackles two types of marginalized psychological pain:

  • Heartbreak when you weren't married to the person (even if it was a long-term relationship).
  • The loss of a beloved pet.

By "marginalized," I mean pain that is dismissed and not taken very seriously by most people.

The book got me thinking about other types of psychological pain that tend to be marginalized and dismissed in our society:

  • Baby-related issues, including the pain of infertility, early miscarriage, pre/post-natal anxiety, and gender disappointment.
  • Psychological pain that accompanies invisible chronic physical pain.
  • Trauma that doesn't directly affect you, such as when a celebrity dies, or when other people at your company are laid off.
  • Trauma that turns out to be nothing major, but creates an extended period of anxiety for you, such as a lump that is possibly cancerous, but turns out fine, or an instance when you get burgled, and they only steal relatively minor items.

You may be able to think of other examples of psychological pain that have impacted you more than other people would consider warranted. On the other hand, you may find yourself judging some of the examples I've given as not very significant or as evidence of "weakness."

Strategies for Coping

If you find yourself experiencing marginalized psychological pain, here are some strategies to handle it.

Take your feelings and reactions seriously.

You may find that your internal reactions mirror society's. You might think, "I shouldn't be feeling like this. I should be over it." Or you think, "Other people have much more serious things to deal with. What's wrong with me that I'm so soft and needy?"

Other people being dismissive of your pain doesn't help, and neither does you being dismissive of your own emotional needs.

Everyone can benefit from understanding certain fundamental principles about how to effectively cope with negative emotions and by developing a toolkit of strategies for doing this. I've written a post about these already, so I won't reinvent the wheel here. Check out that post for lots of specifics. You can also discover strategies in my book, The Anxiety Toolkit, or Winch's earlier book, Emotional First Aid, or through working with a therapist.

Build a relationship with a therapist whom you can see for booster sessions.

If there are any advantages to having experienced a problem like depression or anxiety before, one of them is that if you've seen a therapist previously, you can often go back to the same therapist for a session or two when life issues come up.

For example, let's say you saw a therapist for anxiety for 3-4 months. A couple years later, you are undergoing IVF treatment and are finding it stressful. You can call your therapist and have a single session to touch base and review/tweak your current coping strategies.

Accept the support your friends and family are able to give at this time.

Other people tend to give us support based on their judgment of how affected we should be by something. In his book, Winch refers to our supporters having a "statute of limitations" on emotional pain. When they think we should be over it, their empathy stops.

It's easy to get into a tug of war with people you're close to when you feel like you're not getting enough empathy. If you tell your loved ones about your pain, and they don't give you the empathy you want, you might react by explaining it in different ways to try to get them to understand. This can result in you talking about your pain too often.

When we're ruminating (overthinking) about our pain, that can spill over into conversations too. If you find yourself wanting to talk endlessly about your distress, there's a great chance you'll feel much better if you learn strategies to disrupt rumination and to challenge common thinking errors.

You'll probably have more success diagnosing your specific thinking errors if you work with a therapist than if you take a DIY approach. Cognitive therapists can often to do this lightning fast (many of your thinking errors will present themselves in your first or second conversation with a therapist).

If your supporters are showing signs of empathy fatigue, you might have to give those people a break. Try letting other people support you in the way they're able to. What activities can you do together that would still feel nurturing to you, but don't involve you talking about your distress?

I don't mean for this to sound judgmental: I can think of situations in which I've gotten into this cycle with family members and needed to take the advice I've given here. But overall, society could do a better job of validating a wider variety of psychological pain and of not unconsciously privileging some types over others (such as the breakups of married couples versus couples in unmarried but long-term relationships).

Additionally, we could all also use more skills for coping when we're experiencing pain that isn't going away, or when we're supporting a friend who is.

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