Human Pain is Universal

By Parke Sterling

Many of us walk around doing our very best to keep our secret intact. We try to hide our anxieties, depressive tendencies, traumas, addictions or feelings of low self-worth because we believe that we are uniquely flawed, that we are the only ones who are experiencing what we are experiencing. After all, just look at all the smiling faces on Instagram as ample evidence to support the narrative that “I am a mess and everyone else has it together.”

The word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that literally means “mask.” And most of us have become experts at wearing a mask in order to not draw attention to our issues. It’s as though our persona helps us avoid suspicious eyes by telling others “nothing to see here; all is well!”

However much we pretend though, there is no denying that we all struggle with emotional pain either chronically or at various points in our life. In fact, research shows that through the course of your life, you have about a 50/50 chance of struggling with suicidal thoughts at a moderate to severe level for at least two weeks.

When the myriad flavors of human emotional pain are added up, it becomes obvious that it is abnormal for someone NOT to experience significant psychological struggles at some point in his or her life. Personally, I am still waiting to meet that unicorn of a person who has gone through life unscathed.

This can all be a terribly depressing realization or it can be the most freeing news we have heard. I would argue it’s the latter and here’s why: When we are struggling with our particular version of psychological pain, it does not mean that there is something “wrong” with us. It simply means that we are experiencing an inherent aspect of being human and in that sense there is no logical reason to feel shameful about it or to keep it a secret.

We don’t have to call these experiences “disorders” and try to find the right diagnosis for them. That can be helpful, of course, because it can validate someone’s emotional experience. It can help them understand that they are not the only ones suffering in this particular way and that maybe it’s more of a human problem than a “them” problem. It can also help clinicians easily communicate with one another regarding a particular client’s symptoms.

In my opinion, it’s also important to balance this by remembering that a diagnosis is a man-made label and very subjective. There is no blood test for bipolar disorder or depression. Many therapists who do not work with insurance companies choose not to use them at all because they find they can do good work without them. That being said, there is a place for them and each person must decide what that place is for themselves.

Here a couple of steps that will help you normalize your “stuff”, drop shame and move forward in life with your neuroses in tow:

  • Take a chance – When you appropriately self-disclose your struggles with friends that you trust and who are emotionally capable of receiving it, you are bound to see a few faces light up. That’s because they are or have struggled as well and they are feeling relief that they aren’t the only ones! In fact, research shows that people actually feel more endeared to someone who is open about their struggles because they aren’t seen as threatening and are more relatable.
  • Talk to a professional - Invest in meeting regularly with a therapist and/or a support group. For many of my clients, therapy is the one place where they don’t feel like that have to pretend as though they have their shit together. Trusted friends help a ton, but the beauty of professional help or a group is that you don’t have to be concerned with “overburdening” them with your struggles.
  • Recognize the role of comparison - You are not comparing apples to apples when you compare the full emotional experience of your life to the persona that others present on social media. Remember, no one posts their panic attacks on Instagram. Comparison is the culprit that leads us to think, “I’m the only one suffering with this.”
  • Don’t cling to a diagnosis – As mentioned above, diagnoses are highly subjective and they are only labels. Oftentimes, it’s a label that turns something like sadness or social anxiety or mild addictions from a universal human experience to a pathological one. However, there is not one size fits all here. I have seen diagnoses be both a boon and a hindrance for people, but defining oneself by a diagnosis is rarely helpful.
  • Learn to “accept the equipment that you have been given” – Focus less on what’s “wrong with you” and more on how to relate to pain in a healthier way while pursuing that which is important. Therapy can help with this.

If you are experiencing your share of human pain right now, reach out to talk about how therapy can help.

You can reach me at Or feel free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more, visit

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