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Your pain is not trivial: How first responders can shelve shame and share their stories

Burying our feelings of trauma and shame only further entrench them in our experiences


Pain often co-occurs with grief and shame. What many may not realize is that it’s often not our painful experiences that cause our suffering but rather the shame that disconnects us from others and forces us to suffer in silence.


“Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete. The way in which man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances to add deeper meaning to his life.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl

This is one of Dr. Frankl’s most valuable lessons from his experience as a Holocaust survivor who was not only forced to endure life as a prisoner but also the loss of his parents, wife and brother during the Holocaust. Like so many who have endured unimaginable suffering, Dr. Frankl turned his suffering into meaning, and armored with this meaning, was able to grow from his trauma. In the years after his release, he became a world-renowned psychologist who taught people around the world the importance of finding meaning in suffering, plus the power of recognizing that anything can be taken from a person except one thing – the ability to choose their response.

Today, whenever I am faced with a difficult challenge, I think to his quote:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Armed with this knowledge, I work to savor that space between stimulus and response so I can better choose my response.

Pain rooted in shame

Pain is ubiquitous, a natural part of life, an experience that nobody will avoid. Pain often co-occurs with grief and shame. What many may not realize is that it’s often not our painful experiences that cause our suffering but rather the shame that disconnects us from others and forces us to suffer in silence. Shame is the primitive universal emotion that communicates to us that we are flawed and defective, and as a result, unworthy of connection and belonging.

In her work on shame resilience, Dr. Brené Brown explains that all shame needs to grow is the destructive trio of silence, secrecy and judgement. Unfortunately, when many of us experience pain or suffering, we allow shame to force us into the silence. Yet, according to Dr. Brown, the more we try to avoid speaking about shame, the more control it has over us and the more it negatively impacts our lives.

Often, when experiencing pain or shame, we mistakenly believe that our pain must be proportional to an event or a loss that has been suffered, and when we feel our experience is insignificant compared to the experiences of others, we further bury our shame and isolate ourselves from the very thing that helps us to heal, connection with others. Some of us look at people like Dr. Frankl and assume that compared to the magnitude of his suffering, we shouldn’t complain about our “first-world problems.”

Yet, over the years working with first responder peer support, I have learned that most of us will experience pain, suffering or shame in our careers. I have also witnessed so many who are afraid to share their true experiences because they feel it is too “trivial” or too “unworthy” of burdening others. However, if you fail to address and express your pain, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is, it will find a way to seep into your life, and negatively impact not only you, but the lives of those closest to you.

Trauma: Complex and cumulative

A profound testimony for the need to explore, address and validate our source of pain came from former Army Major Joshua Mantz who nearly died after being shot in Baghdad. When he shares his story, he explains that trauma is not always what it seems, and for him, his mental healing was delayed for years because it was overshadowed by the experience of being shot, when in fact, he was trained and prepared for such an event.

As Mantz shares in his book, “The Beauty of a Darker Soul,” in the years after being shot, his mental health declined, and while initially he didn’t feel like it had to do with the isolated traumatic experience:

I started to believe it should be traumatic because of the enormous amount of focus placed upon it by everyone around me. Dying became my convenient scapegoat. All the while, I could sense that something much deeper was burdening me, though I couldn’t place my finger on what for years.”

Those years of suffering in silence brought him to nearly end his life, and when he finally sought professional help, he found that the experiences before and after being shot were far more challenging to navigate. Those cumulative experiences included the death of his father, abandonment in relationships, survivor’s guilt and Crohn’s disease. He found that sometimes, the “smallest, most microscopic detail of an experience is enough to make us implode.” And the only way to heal is to uncover those details.

Mantz went on to explain that trauma is complex and cumulative, one event builds on another, from our early life to our experiences in school, relationships and our experiences as adults. As he explained in “The Beauty of a Darker Soul,” each of these traumatic events “create cracks in our foundation, and if we continue to move forward without repairing those cracks, we end up trying to build our lives on a shaky foundation. Therefore, sometimes we have severe reactions to events that are seemingly insignificant.”

Finding the source

When we attempt to assign a logical explanation for our pain without allowing ourselves the opportunity to explore its true source, we become increasingly overwhelmed. When we hide the parts that don’t make sense or those parts that bring us shame and embarrassment, we fail to address them, and in doing so, we continue to build our lives on that unstable foundation. Often, first responders try to logically blame a bad call for their stress and troubled relationships, because the narrative we are continuously told is that the calls should negatively impact us. In doing so, we tend to overlook our burnout, poor sleep, troubled relationships, addiction and early-life experiences.

This is not just true of first responders. Military research discovered that early-life experiences and trauma had a much more significant impact on the mental health of soldiers compared to their service. In fact, according to Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” there is no relationship between combat and suicide, and higher rates of suicides have been found to occur with soldiers not deployed in combat zones. Further, citing a study detailed in JAMA Psychiatry online, MilitaryTimes reported on the lack of connection between deployment and suicide.

Turning to trained professionals

Therapists are trained to recognize when their patient’s presenting problem is just one piece of a larger problem, and at times a complete red herring. Our defenses naturally keep any threatening emotions below the surface, even when doing this only makes those emotions stronger.

Trauma, pain and grief all impact our rational prefrontal cortex, and when this happens, sequence and truth can be lost. This is precisely why therapists are trained to listen for what patients aren’t saying.

Mantz closes his story by explaining that the healing process is not linear, and it takes time. For him, he found the best way to suffer productively is with a trained professional in therapy. I believe we all could benefit from spending time with a trained professional. We have so many blind spots in our lives that cause us to continue to build on weak foundations, and often, a therapist can help us recognize and address those blind spots.

The power of psychological isolation

While there are always those calls that will stick with us, for me, a lot of my pain came from feeling like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. There were years where I struggled to find belonging, yet admitting that, for me, was humiliating. I attempted to bury my feelings and move forward, while on the inside, doing so destroyed me.

I will never forget the visceral feeling I had after reading this quote from Jean Miller and Irene Striver, quoted by Dr. Brown in her book, “Daring Greatly”:

We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation.”

Psychological isolation is a powerful experience that, when not addressed, can lead to addiction or a host of other destructive outcomes, including suicide. No matter what we tell ourselves, we, as humans, thrive when we experience meaningful and authentic human connection. It’s an absolute biological necessity.

Sharing our stories

I’m grateful that peer support and vulnerability are becoming so common today that more leaders are sharing their experiences and encouraging others to do the same. But what I have also witnessed is the fear of being completely honest about one’s pain. Many of our brothers and sisters feel that while they can open up about the bad calls and painful losses they experience, they can’t share their true sources of pain, especially if those sources seem insignificant or embarrassing.

Instead of sharing our true sources of pain, especially those that cause shame and guilt, we unintentionally exacerbate our suffering through avoidance by numbing. However, sadly, when we numb the bad, we unintentionally numb the good. In our attempt to live a life free of feeling pain, we compound our suffering.

Again from “Daring Greatly,” Dr. Brown shared this insight:

Americans today are more debt-ridden, obese, medicated, and addicted than we have ever been. For the first time in history, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that automobile accidents are now the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States. The leading cause? Drug overdoses. In fact, more people die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine drug use combined. … We’re desperate to feel less or more of something – to make something go away or to have more of something else.”

We have become so disconnected and sterilized from understanding just how normal and common pain is that we naturally move to numb it as soon as it creeps in. When what we need most is to allow ourselves to feel our pain, address our pain, and put in to rest.

The most effective way to do this is by sharing our stories. The key is sharing only with those who have earned the right to hear our stories. When we have the courage to share difficult truths, we are rewarded by being released from the shame that weighs us down. We must allow ourselves to feel what we feel, and to not be afraid to share our struggles.

Other ways to address our pain:

  • Journaling
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Creating time for enjoyable activities
  • Resting
  • Sleeping
  • Exercising
  • Spending time with people who allow you to be your true authentic self.
  • Practicing gratitude

Face the storm

I want to close with a powerful story, Facing the Storm, from the book “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” by David Kessler on grief:

The buffalo of Montana “run into the storm, thus minimizing how long they will be in it. They don’t ignore it, run from it, or just hope it will go away, which is what we often do when we want to avoid our storms of emotion. We don’t realize that by doing this, we’re maximizing our time in the pain. The avoidance of grief will only prolong the pain of grief. Better to turn toward it and allow it to run its natural course, knowing that the pain will eventually pass, that one of these days we will find the love on the other side of the pain.”

Dena Ali is a battalion chief with the Raleigh (N.C.) Fire Department. Prior to becoming a firefighter, she served five years as a police officer. She has a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina Pembroke, where her research focused on firefighter suicide. Ali is an adjunct instructor with the NFA and the founder and director of North Carolina Triangle Peer Support. She is an avid fitness enthusiast and cyclist, and was recently named the 2022 Remarkable Women Winner for Central North Carolina.