“That Doesn’t Hurt”: On Pain, Invalidation, and Credibility

Illustration by Tina Duong.

In the book “The Body in Pain,” Elaine Scarry claims that “‘having pain’ may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty,’ while for the other person it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt.’” In other words, Scarry asserts that there is no certainty of pain unless you are the one experiencing it. This is dangerous because this privilege gives the power to invalidate and silence someone else’s pain.

Growing up with an older sibling, we would often play rough and I remember sometimes getting hurt and telling him: “Ow, that hurts.” He usually responded with “no it doesn’t,” or, “that doesn’t hurt.” While I knew he was just trying to keep me from crying and telling our parents, I was always very offended when he dismissed my claims of pain. How could he have known exactly what I was feeling, and why didn’t he believe me when I told him I was hurting? Even more, what do you do when the person who causes you pain denies you feel it?

Now I know that I felt such indignation because he was both invalidating my experience of pain, and taking away my credibility to know and talk about my own body. As I grew older, I began to recognize similar phrases; new ways of saying the same “that doesn’t hurt,” without actually saying it.

When we look at these scenarios, what we find is that dynamics of privilege define these interactions and this is crucial to notice. Essentially, what this person has is the privilege to silence someone.

Perhaps the most transparent example of this would be the push for All Lives Matter in place of Black Lives Matter. By changing BLM to ALM, ALM simultaneously invalidates the pain and oppression Black people experience everyday, as well as calls into question the credibility that Black people have to know and talk about their own pain. It also works to dilute and consequently silence the struggle that BLM represents and fights for.

Another example is the taboo on people who menstruate who talk about periods and/or wish to have the relating pain that comes with periods taken seriously. It comes as no surprise then, that The Independent released an article earlier this year, claiming that women must wait an average of 65 minutes to see a doctor for abdominal pain compared to a man’s 49 minutes. This suggests that people view the pain a man feels to somehow be more valid or credible and hence requires attention faster than a woman’s pain. Here, the response to pain is largely gendered and the credibility to talk about pain is taken away from women and those who menstruate.

It is important to realize that this invalidation of pain occurs on multiple levels. While this happens in one-on-one interactions, it can also occur on larger scales and influence the way certain groups of people get access to or do not get access to the help they need. We all experience pain, and want our pain to be taken seriously. Louis C. K. summarizes this issue very well in an episode of his show “Louie,” claiming, in a nutshell, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”

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