“Should-ing” People Out of a Pain that Heals: Why Snapping Out of It Is Bad

“Snap out of it!”

In this post I talk about why it would be bad to snap out of suffering and how we can help people who are suffering see the bright side. Hint: it’s not what you think!

Know this: it is impossible to “snap out” of serious mental illness. And actually, even people who suffer from less officially “serious” mental health issues (i.e. non-psychotic or non-mood-related disorders) cannot just “snap out” of them; many do well to seek professional attention. But that’s not what this post is about.

Did you know that telling someone to snap out of their woes is terrible, terrible advice, let alone whether this is even possible or not?  People should not just stay in a pit, suffer and wait until they suddenly feel better and can act independently again! Usually this is not even possible. But I’m saying that even if they could, I would stop them from snapping out of it completely. Because by “snapping out of it” we miss the valleys that helps us grow.

“No pain no gain” is a horrible expression, – never use it! especially not to someone with mental illness! And yet this phrase wouldn’t be around if there wasn’t some truth behind it.

We must treat pain as our teacher.

In my own case, pain has taught me what matters in life. To me, what matters is helping people who are suffering. I spent years of my life terrified of and paranoid about things that weren’t even happening. And now that I’m no longer suffering, I can draw on my purified priorities to do what I think will help the most people.

Helping others, even to the detriment of our reputation, is Biblical. St. Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 about the importance of our dying to our outermost self – the bragging self – the what’s my resume look like? self. Because what is inside is being transformed when this happens into something glorious. And that wouldn’t happen if we could just “snap out of it”:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

I would add to St. Paul’s assertion that just as things which are seen are temporary, that things which are felt are also temporary. We must always remind ourselves that we are not our feelings and we are bigger than how we feel. Always!

In a way, Paul seems grateful for pain. Granted it is a light pain. In one passage he rejoices about the thorn in his flesh that has helped him to remember that he is not God but one of God’s creatures.

Now the next question is this: How might we help loved ones who are suffering to see this very real bright side to their suffering? How can we frame this for the person so that they can see how they could grow from this?!? How lucky they are?!? How exciting to find something positive! The silver lining!!!!

The answer: we can’t make anyone see it. We can only hold space for them to find it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, it is easy to provide encouragement by forcing collective wisdom like “no pain no gain” or “every cloud has a silver lining” on people who are suffering. I say unfortunately because it’s not long after we have done this that we have alienated the person we had meant to help. They probably won’t trust us with their pain again! And they’ll be still more isolated for it! In fact, they might do the opposite thing to spite us! (Read anything by Dostoevsky for more on this dynamic – my favorite is The Notes from Underground).

I will conclude with an example from my own experience.

I remember how, while stuck in the bleakest despair, my grandma once gave me a gratitude journal and told me to find something to be grateful for everyday and write it down. It’s not so bad! Indeed, from the outside things looked great still. To HER! The practice of looking for the good could not have been further from my mind. The thought of it repulsed me and I threw the journal in the trash, determined not fit into the stereotype of the shallow Californian superficially pretending that all was well when I felt like crap. Life went on. (By the way, it’s not only Californians who do this…)

Several months later my mom bought me a gratitude jar. Mom instructed me to write on a piece of paper something to be grateful for every day and then to put it in the jar. And then she backed away and left.

Hmmm…. This felt different….


…Because she did not press me on it, and because she did not lecture me on how important it was to be grateful… because she did not “should” on me and say, “you should be grateful!” …Because she did not ask me again, let alone daily, if I was doing what she had recommended…, or remind me that so-and-so had it worse because they had problem X… Because of all of this, I did not throw it away. No – while I did not use the jar, – I’m too much of a contrarian for that – still I did not throw it away. And then something amazing happened.

Somehow, over the course of a few months, I began to feel, and eventually to know, that that empty jar was waiting for me for when I would be ready to fill it. It became my space for hope. This was completely unconscious. And with time I visualized myself being able to put notes in it.

What can we learn from this? This: Even though gifts can fall flat, they might not. It doesn’t hurt to try. And the person can always throw them away if they don’t like them. Just don’t take that personally if it happens, and definitely don’t “should” on the person, saying, “but I spent 100 dollars on that!” And don’t “should” on the person telling them how to solve their problems in the manner in which you would solve them if you were them. You’re not them. And no one suffers in the same way.

Give the gift and back away. Don’t bring it up again. And don’t give gifts too often. Frame it like this, maybe: “Hey, when I was having a hard time, this really helped me. I know we’re all different but give this a shot if you ever feel like it. Up to you… Hey I gotta run!”

Finally, and I say this to the ill and well alike, if you haven’t bought yourself a gratitude jar, consider it. It is a place holder, a reminder that no matter how bad we feel, – and it’s not just people with mental illness who can feel horrible – we are not our feelings and we will not feel the same way forever. And some day, if we do not give up all hope, our gratitude will be deeper for our pain. And that we will be better servants of God and better able to minister to others for it, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Remember, as St. Paul wrote, “the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen [or felt] are eternal.” Amen.


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