Today we’re talking about comparative suffering. which I define as - dismissing or belittling your own experience because "someone else is worse off". Here’s Michael Rosen of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt fame using it after 47 days in intensive care with Covid. “It feels mean to be complaining when plenty of people's... effects are worse than mine." he says in this BBC interview. For real. 47. Days. In. Intensive. Care. And he feels "mean" to talk about it because others have died. If we constantly need to compare our experience against others' for validity, we will likely never speak about anything. The wonderful Brené Brown talks about "giving ourselves permission to feel hard things" and I think she's onto something. In a world where we bandy around the term "mental health" at the drop of a hat, this 'permission to feel' piece is enormous.
It is wonderful to be empathetic and to not assume you are the only person with a problem. Cornering someone and complaining that your £50,000 a year salary has gone down to £40,000, when the listener has no income - as happened to me the other day - shows a lack of awareness.
But this is not addressed to the narcissists or whatever you call people who pathologically lack empathy. They're unlikely to be reading this.
I’m addressing you. And myself.
It is OK to express your suffering. There is space for you. You can be seen and heard. Is it a good idea to get stuck in expressing your suffering to the same people day in day out? No, you’ll find they’ll drift away if you do that. But telling people that you’re experiencing something difficult - that can be vulnerable and brave. It can mean you get the help you need. It can help others to understand you better. It can help them to understand the issue you’re struggling with better. It can provide a healthy model to little ones, who are watching you to learn how to deal with big feelings. And best of all, it can start to MOVE YOU OUT OF BEING STUCK IN THAT ISSUE.
As long as you are prepared to hold your problem lightly, you might be astonished at the transformative effect talking about it has.
Prefacing or finishing your sentence with “but there are people worse off than me” is a defence mechanism. It speaks to the tendency we have to say or think, “Really? You’re complaining about this when there are people homeless/starving/dying of cancer…? Subtext - "you have no right to take up space with your ridiculous small problems. They (and you) are trivial and I don’t have time for this." Is that the message we want to send ourselves and our loved ones?
You do not have to be OK all the time. If that’s in your unwritten rulebook, tear it out and throw it on the fire where it belongs. There will be times when you are not OK, and at those times it may be helpful to speak the problem to trusted listeners. The more people understand the deep need we all have to be seen and heard, and that seeing and hearing someone else does not diminish us, in fact the opposite, the more those safe spaces can be created. You are allowed to feel this way.
As ever, keep singing!
B’Opera create high quality music performances, concerts and sessions for little ones 0-5 and their families, usually out of Birmingham Hippodrome, but at the moment everything is over at Patreon with access from as little as £5 a month. Designed for parents and carers of 0-5s, you'll be able to access First Songs sessions, song videos, step by step creative musical activities with PDFs, and performances. Everything you and your little one need to make your days musical, all accessible from home.