A few years ago, I watched Dee Rees’s incredible 2011 film Pariah, and the memory of watching it has stayed with me to this day. The protagonist, Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay), is a 17-year-old African-American girl struggling with the exploration of her sexuality. When she comes out to her family as gay, her worst fears come true — instead of being accepted for who she is, she is rejected.
One particular scene struck me to my core: Alike has just come out to her mom in the midst of a horrible fight, and her mother, disgusted, reacts by viciously attacking her. Alike retreats to her bedroom and falls to the floor, wailing. Her pain is palpable.
This scene was heart wrenching for me to watch. I’ve never been in Alike’s situation, but I know the agony of feeling trapped, particularly by parents who in many moments didn’t seem to understand me. While I knew my parents loved me, I remember as a teenager often feeling suffocated, like I couldn’t breathe, growing up in our strict household — because I couldn’t be myself. As I explain in my book, it’s this struggle that has inspired a lot of the work I do now to help others live authentically.
Later I recalled this scene, and how it brought up strong feelings of relating to Alike’s anguish, to friends, and nearly everyone responded by saying that they can relate to the experience I’m describing. Perhaps it didn’t have to do with conformity being pushed at home, but something in their life’s journey has caused them this much agony. At first, the consistency with which my friends were echoing “yes, I’ve felt that” surprised me, but when I paused to deeply reflect on what I was hearing, I remembered that everyone can understand the experience of pain.
Suffering is Universal
In my work coaching senior leaders in areas like cultural competence and authentic leadership and in my work as a speaker, I’ve increasingly been struck by the patterns in what people share with me. Consistently, leaders and others share with me that behind their brave face, they really feel vulnerable. Many people have shared the reality of their lives with me — their divorce, their own or their teenager’s struggle with addiction, their journey with overcoming a violent upbringing, or their experiences living with depression and anxiety. I’ve heard countless stories.
When I hear these stories, it’s a reminder that each of us is suffering in some way. Suffering is a universal human experience. But so many of us forget this because we don’t often hear about others’ struggles and we don’t often share our own. We do this, of course, because we fear what will happen when we share our pain.
We don’t want others to think we’re imperfect, less worthy, or less legitimate than the image they have of us (an image that sometimes we’ve carefully constructed). But it’s an unbelievable burden to carry, pretending to live a perfect life when we’re not. And a lot of the time, people can tell that we’re not living our best, even when they don’t know what’s wrong.
Share Your Suffering
What we really need to do is unify around the human experience of suffering, and the best way to do this is by being authentic about our own experiences. Sharing our suffering with others opens the door to receiving the love, support, guidance and safety we need to heal and overcome our circumstances.
On an individual level, when we bottle up our suffering, we feel alone in the world — like we’re the only ones having the experience. But this is an illusion. When we share our pain with others, it’s less alienating. We come to understand that we’re not the only ones, and that we’re not weird. Ultimately, sharing our pain will set us free. But this can be difficult to do, especially when we fear the consequences of doing so.
I suggest starting small. Next time a good friend asks how you’re doing, share not only your triumphs and successes, but also take a deep breath and push yourself to share your more difficult feelings. Share your moments of anxiety, the insecurities you feel in your relationship, your struggles with parenting, your financial issues, or whatever else is a source of pain or discomfort in your life.
Sharing how much I identified with that scene in Pariah is not something would have done a few years ago. It’s taken a lot of work to get to a place where I feel comfortable sharing and being vulnerable. But in sharing, and affirming these feelings with others, I feel much less alone.
What is one area of your life in which you’re suffering or experiencing pain that you will share after today? With whom will you share it? How might sharing your suffering help you?
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