If someone is brave enough to open up about their struggles, listen, validate and allow them to have their feelings.
Don’t compare your pain to another’s. If someone is brave enough to open up about their struggles, don’t invalidate them by saying you know what they’re feeling, or that you have been through that too. This is the reason why so many decide not to talk about their mental health issues. They don’t feel safe or they feel judged. And they certainly didn’t want to turn their pain into a competition.
When someone is hurting, be it physical pain or a mental health issue, they want it to stop. But asking for help now a days, seems to come with a price. Pain is pain. And how we perceive it, has nothing to do with the very real experience that the hurting person is talking about. So many judge mental health. As if they don’t see you walking with a cast, that somehow your pain isn’t real. Or the addict who stops asking for help, because of the judgement that is associated with it. No one decides to be an addict. The addiction in many cases is a way to mask their pain.
We have got to stop minimizing other peoples suffering. Is there any doubt why 22 service men and women take their lives everyday? You can take two people who suffer from PTSD, and who have the same symptoms, and they have two very different experiences. There is a stigma that is attached to illness. There is even a bigger stigma attached to mental health.
But lets go deeper into the pain spectrum. When we talk about sexual assault, why is it that only about a third of these cases are reported? Is it because they do not feel safe and feel that they are going to be judged? I go back to if someone is brave enough to open up about their struggles, don’t invalidate them. How could we possibly know what they feel? Even if we have been through something similar. This is our time to listen, not outdo.
I can recall years ago when I was working as a crisis counselor in the HIV community. The life expectancy for someone who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS was about 6 months. The trajectory for these people was so horrific, many would often turn to means of self medication. In other words, they did what they had to do in order not to feel pain. This may make you feel uncomfortable. But this is not your pain process. I can also recall my fair share of hospice work. Until you have been with a patient day in and day out, and their only words are please kill me, you cannot judge.
I believe it takes great strength for someone who is in pain to share their story. I believe it takes even greater strength for them to reach out and ask for help. We should honor that. We should try and create a safe, non judgmental space for them. We may have some experience that may be relevant to them. But I have always found it best to take my lead from them.
This is not the time to tell them how God is going to take away their pain. Nor is this the time to tell them that everything is going to be alright. This is the time to listen. They reached out for a reason. Let them tell you what that reason is. Maybe they do want to talk about God. Or maybe they want to be reassured that it will be okay. But let us get into the habit of listening. Listening without judgement. Because so many people suffer in silence. We need to let them know it is okay to have a conversation about it.
The pain process is very complex. We need to simply this process by saying “I believe you” and “What can I do to help?” Because the minute we start to steer the conversation to our experiences of pain, we have taken the power away from them. And they won’t feel safe if you make it about you. Honor their pain. Honor their process. Even if you don’t believe them. No one should have to suffer in silence. And no one should have to justify their pain.