3 taboos that keep us from talking about the hard things

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Photo by The Gender Spectrum Collection
Brad Wolfe
Brad Wolfe with Reimagine

June 10, 2022

The hard things in life are difficult to talk about. Death, mortality, loss, and adversity are all core parts of human existence. Yet, even though we all experience them, they are taboos that are not often discussed openly.

Even doctors and psychiatrists, whose work involves breaking hard news and sharing challenging information, often struggle to talk skillfully about these parts of life.

So how do we talk about the hard things? What are the taboos that stop us? Where do they come from and how can we overcome them?

  • What is a taboo?

  • 3 taboos concerning the hard things in life

  • How do you talk about hard things?

  • Who can you talk to?

What is a taboo?

A taboo is a social norm or custom that forbids us from taking certain actions or talking about specific topics. Social norms regulate our lives. They guide us on how to act and think. We learn social norms from family, friends, school, religion, and the media. Taboos are those norms we are taught never to do. The pressure to avoid taboos is generally reinforced by the people around us.

3 taboos concerning the hard things in life

Every culture has unique taboos. For example, in Japan it is a taboo to place chopsticks upright in your food. In Thailand it is a taboo to touch the top of someone’s head. This can be considered invasive, because the head is sacred in Thai Buddhism. In many cultures, it is a taboo to ask a woman her age. That would be rude! These taboos are particular, but taboos can also be quite broad. In some cases, taboos leave entire topics off limits. If you’ve struggled with a taboo, you are not alone. Even though the following topics affect all of us, here are three big taboos related to the hard things in life.

1. Death

Talking about death is a hard thing to do no matter what. It can feel scary, sad, or mysterious and provoke anxiety in us. Talking about death is taboo in most cultures. In Behavioral Science, Terror Management Theory suggests that holding a positive worldview and outlook works as a shield against death anxiety. We tend to create a “good vibes only” society and don’t like to be reminded of our own impermanence. German psychologist Otto Rank theorized that all culture, in fact, is just an elaborate way for humans to symbolically ignore death. We go to great lengths to avoid what we fear.


Ever hear someone talk about planning their own funeral? It’s a taboo. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, only 36% of Americans have written or talked with loved ones about their end-of-life plans, even though 100% of us will have the experience of dying.

2. Trauma

There are few topics more taboo than trauma. From assault to abuse in all its forms, traumatic experiences are almost always taboo. The reasons for this are complex. Survivors may have prior experiences trying to talk about taboos that didn’t go well or weren’t validating. They may fear retaliation. Or survivors may feel guilt or shame, wrongly blaming themselves for what happened. There can also be practical consequences, like losing one’s job or friends.

Because trauma is a taboo, it reinforces a sense that we are alone in our experiences, even though by the time we are an older adult, more than 70% of us have experienced trauma. Yet, psychologists generally agree that speaking about trauma is one of the best paths towards recovery.

3. Race

Despite nearly constant race-related current events in US headlines, race is still a taboo subject. Perhaps people fear the shame of their prejudices, known or unknown. A Reuters poll revealed that 40% of white people in the US don’t have a single friend of a different race. Certainly, a lack of knowledge (ignorance) may contribute to people avoiding the topic of race. Conversations about race in the workplace are considered even more taboo than money, sex, or politics.

How do you talk about the hard things?

  1. Understand the taboo. Learn where the taboo comes from. Is it cultural? Does it have historical roots? Learning how others live through, face, or talk about the same thing helps remove stigma. When we understand the origins of a social taboo, we help demystify its power to keep us silent. To get started, try an online search for the taboo or read up on community resources that fit the topic.
  2. Write down your feelings. Journaling is a powerful way to release and process emotions related to taboos. A bonus is that, by putting your feelings into words, you can help yourself prepare for having a conversation. To get started, meditate on your emotional and physical sensations and write whatever comes up. Try outlining a potential discussion. Mentally prepare yourself to break the silence.
  3. Find someone you trust. Knowing who is safe to speak with is crucial. It should be someone who you feel won’t shut you down. Once you identify someone to talk to, you can finally break the taboo and speak about it. Sharing your story, thoughts, and experience in a safe community–even if it’s a taboo–can actually help you flourish and move toward a new psychological state called “post traumatic growth.”

Who can you talk to?

Talking about taboo topics helps us feel less alone. Your biggest hurdle is to find a person or community that you trust. Once you open up to one person, the taboo will feel less restrictive.

    • Family. Do you have a trusted family member? Tell them what’s going on in your life. They may have insight to share.

    • Friends. Friends can become your chosen family. Work to find friends who value listening and open conversation, where you can be your full self.

    • Connect with a professional. Talking about the hard things in therapy–or perhaps with your physician or your spiritual leader–is a great place to start. Individual counseling can provide a non-judgmental space to share your feelings, experiences, fears, and desires.

    • Group or peer counseling. By listening to other peoples’ experiences, you can develop your own path to growth. Seek out professional referrals such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for finding a group.

    • Online community. Find a safe community online that encourages this type of dialogue. Sometimes talking to a stranger you meet in an online community is easier than someone you know.

Talking about the hard things helps us grow

Taboos keep us from talking about life’s most difficult experiences. We can feel alone in our struggles. Overcoming these taboos and talking about the hard things helps us connect to each other…and ourselves. Find a community to talk about the hard things by joining Reimagine’s events.

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