How do you learn to hide pain?

What is it about hurt, vulnerability and sadness that makes many of us form a persona of happiness and busy-ness that shields us from the eyes of others? Why do we push ourselves to build a life that looks perfect from the outside, but can feel empty and despairing on the inside?

I’ve termed it Perfectly Hidden Depression.

I wish you could read the personal emails I’ve received. Just today, one has come from Malaysia and another from Brazil. Other days, the UK or Australia. Hundreds more have arrived from all over the US.

They’ve come from doctors, advertising executives, teachers, chefs — people from all walks of life. The one thing they have in common? They’ve read or listened to my posts and podcasts on Perfectly Hidden Depression. And their response…. “I am hiding. And doing it very well.”

Sometimes it’s been a relief, sometimes a surprise.

But how does the hiding begin?

1) You were sexually or physically abused.

Perhaps you were abused as a child.  It was at that point you began hiding your pain.  You were told to shut up.  Keep the secret. You’ve simply continued the practice. You’re filled with unspoken shame. You never talk about what is really going on with you — what hurts you, what angers you. The damage from being the target of sexual manipulation or violence silences you. You have a secret that eats away at you, and made you feel out of control. So staying in control has become vital to your way of life.

It may be that the abuse is in the present, not the past. Or both. You may be actively hiding being yelled at, scorned, or ridiculed. so it becomes mandatory to not let anyone get to know you, or venture too much into your real world.

2) You were a child of alcoholics or addicts.

You learned to be hyper-vigilant. You kept your feelings completely to yourself because it was far from safe to communicate them. You may have devoted yourself to school or athletic activities, a job — anything to keep you away from home.  Children react differently in this environment, but you might become invisible to your parents to protect yourself. And you stay invisible as an adult, or morph yourself into who others need you to be.

3) You were emotionally abused.

You were told you weren’t going to amount to anything, or that you were too sensitive, a whiner. This kind of emotional abuse, a complete denigration of your potential as a human being, is cruel. Yet those words can be etched in your mind for quite a long time. You’re left obsessed with proving that parent, teacher or coach wrong. So you create a perfect, very successful life. And you avoid admitting vulnerability like the plague.

4) You took a pseudo-adult role in your family as a child.

It was your job to take care of all the others in your family. Perhaps one or both of your parents suffered mental or physical illness, or was someone who couldn’t act as an adult. You took care of brothers and sisters. Maybe you were the eldest child, or maybe you were simply the one most innately responsible. You fed them, made sure they did their homework, and got them in bed.  You made sure a parent took their medication, or picked them up from the bar at night. You became someone who made sure tasks were accomplished, and you were good at it. You began hiding how lonely and in need of comfort you were.

5) You were the “star” of your family.

You were highly praised for your successes. “You never disappoint me.” “You’re always at the top of the class.” You’re labeled the smart one, the athletic one, the accomplished one. “He can do anything he sets his mind to.” You felt as if you could never fail or falter. The pressure of your childhood was immense. Add this pressure to whatever realistic pressure you faced in the world outside your family, and you’re set immediately up for believing that you have to keep the thumb in your back, pushing and prodding yourself, to remain being the star. You can’t accept mistakes, and become highly perfectionistic.

6) You are male.

You were taught that it’s unmanly to admit any kind of vulnerability. Your male role models had lived that way, or maybe you grew up in a highly gender-stereotyped environment or culture, where men and women had different rules or expectations. You put up a huge front of stoicism.

7) You weren’t allowed to express painful emotion. Perfection was expected. 

Things happened, even painful things like death, divorce, or disappointment, but no one talked about the pain of those losses. You were hushed for crying, punished for showing anger, sent to your room if you looked upset. “Don’t come down until you get yourself together.” “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” You were never comforted or supported for feeling hurt, or lost, or confused. So you hushed. You stopped asking for comfort, because there was none there. You stuck whatever hurt you had far away, and became expert at denying its presence. .

The dominant belief was to always look perfect to the outside world – to never admit that there were painful problems on the inside, and to keep up the pretense at all costs. Not a hair out of place. Every Facebook post reflects smiling, happy faces.

8) You felt (or feel) responsible for a parent’s happiness or fulfillment.

Your parent said things like, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” “There’s no one who understands me like you do.” You feel as if it’s your job to emotional prop up that parent. So you have to be ever-constant, ever-caring. It’s what you learn love is – you, attending to someone else’s insecurity or need. You learn that your worth is in what you can do or be for someone else.

This undo responsibility is a set-up. No one has the power to bring fulfillment or contentment to another. You can try. But the responsibility for finding happiness, for being content with life, lies with each person. How can you ever leave, if it’s your job to make a parent happy?  So you may stay locked into that role. Your hide your own struggles. If known, they might disappoint the parent you’re trying so hard to please. Your life can become a tangle of hidden secrets.

And if you do leave –move to another city or take a job that keeps you busy — you walk around feeling as if you’ve failed at some job you never applied for, but were given — simply because you’ve grown up.

9) The culture of the family was influential.

Cultural influences were important. There’s a vast amount of difference between countries and cultures in what is stressed or allowed emotionally. Whether your ethnicity is Scottish, Chinese, Hispanic or South African, whatever region of the country where you were reared — all be important in shaping your response to painful emotions.

You don’t have to continue living a childhood strategy for emotional survival. It worked then. It may not work on your behalf now. Your parents, your environment, or your culture are no longer in charge. Or they don’t have to be.

Revealing vulnerability doesn’t mean you’re a victim. Or weak. Or fragile.

We all hurt.

You don’t have to hide.


You can hear more about Perfectly Hidden Depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”

Click here for a questionnaire to see if you experience Perfectly Hidden Depression.

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