Why Do We Believe Visible Pain More?

Me at Goodwill

Sometimes the pain inside cannot be seen.

A phrase I often utter flippantly is “I will die falling down a flight of stairs.” This is not a morbid prediction as much as a slight jab at my lack of grace. During my preteen years, a doctor once said that I had “clumsy-kid syndrome.” Just what every adolescent girl wants to hear.

Anyway, this saying of mine once again was proven today. As I attempted to walk up a flight of outdoor stairs, I tripped and fell on the concrete. Although my hands were remarkably unmarked, blood began to gush from my knee. Wandering back into my school where I was helping with the graduation ceremony, I found one of the women who worked in the registrar’s office and requested a bandage.

“Oh my goodness, will you be okay?” She wondered as she attempted to stop the bleeding. However, the red substance continued to flow and even leak out of the BandAid. While she bustled about trying to find a way to help me, I felt oddly relieved about the blood. After all, it proved that I had really been injured and needed some attention. I was not just some wimp who begged for help over a tiny bump. My body’s physical reaction proved that something was wrong and needed healing.

This situation made me ponder the whole dilemma of mental illness. Sometimes not having physical proof leads others not to believe in these disorders. “It is all in your head.” How common is that phrase? If we do not have physical signs of the problem, people assume that nothing is wrong.

This can be seen with multiple illnesses. Those with depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and bipolar disorder often experience misunderstanding because family and friends cannot see the problem. If it is not visible, it isn’t there. Even when brain scans and other physical signs show differences between a healthy person, some still disbelieve the reality of the sickness. If you only smiled more, ate better, tried harder, stopped worrying, cared about others – then everything would be great. Although some of these ideas might help, they alone cannot cure mental illness.

Those who struggle with eating disorders often have great difficulty being treated if they do not show physical signs of their illness. Insurance might refuse to cover treatment or the centers that supposedly advocate recovery might even refuse to see people who are “not sick enough.” Eating disordered thoughts play with this idea of looking sick often. “I am not thin enough to have an eating disorder,” I remember crying in the car on the way to my intake at a treatment center. “They will laugh at me because I am too fat to be getting help.”

So, why are we so attached to the idea of looking the part and showing visible signs of pain? Some people even use self-harm partly as a way to physical display the agony that is inside on their body. The fact that they feel the need to go to that length to express their inner emotions is so sad.

Instead, I encourage us to not judge others just on what is physically visible. As a visual learner, I find pictures and images helpful. However, not all things that are true and real are visible to our eyes. Thus, please advocate for yourself if you struggle with an mental illness or other type of invisible disorder. If you are a support person or know someone with this type of health issue, realize that their struggle is real. Even if you cannot see the problem, the monster that they deal with is as alive as any physical disorder. Try to trust them and help them through this difficult battle.


11 thoughts on “Why Do We Believe Visible Pain More?

  1. ecteedoff says:

    thank you for writing this. I have often thought that I wish I had a “real” disease like cancer just to get people to understand my pain and actually believe me. it’s a horrible thought, especially because I’m sure people with illnesses that are “visible” would take what we have instead. it’s a tricky issue. I also think I started SH as a way to show myself I had something wrong. it’s frustrating, disappointing, and just demonstrates how deep the stigma of mental illness is the lack of education/vast ignorance involved. thanks again for pointing out this valid, and important point.

    • You are welcome. I have also had that thought of wanting to have another disease. People who have cancer or another illness have other struggles but that does not diminish the agony of mental illness. Thank you for such an insightful comment! I hope that you can keep finding the strength to live each day!

  2. Robert Pierce says:

    You make some good points. I know from first hand experience that physical pain can also be difficult to see i those who choose to “tough it out”.

  3. seanmirza says:

    Great article. I would like to THANK YOU for bringing this to attention. We can never have enough discussion regarding this topic, Your observation regarding mental illness and internal pain are very accurate. I volunteer with National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) and there are so many people, young and old, that deal with mild to serious forms of mental illnesses. Often people are just looking for a caring glance, a smile, words of encouragement and may be even a hug. I appreciate you penning this article and I will share this with my fellow volunteers and staff.

    • Wow, thank you so much! It is a topic that I find so painful and important to discuss. And those are wonderful ways to reach out to people who are struggling!

  4. Ruth says:

    Thanks for this tremendous and encouraging blog. I agree with everything except one sentence: “not all things that are true and real are visible to our eyes”. I think that the things that are really true and real are RARELY visible to our eyes.

  5. mewhoami says:

    The most painful of all our hurts and our biggest struggles are often times hidden deep below the surface. No one sees them and that’s what makes them even harder to deal with. We try so hard to handle our problems on our own and when we do seek out help, people blow it off as if it’s no big deal. “It’ll pass. Get over it. Think positively.” What they don’t know, is how wrong they are. We should take people’s pain seriously and we should always listen to a person. Not just hear them, but listen. It is when we listen fully, that we hear the key words and the subtle insights of the person within.

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