As I was going about my business in work this week I came across a leaflet from the Canadian Red Cross (I know, in deepest Hertfordshire…the wonders of the small world we live in!) It was called ‘We are the lucky ones’. You may not have seen it, but I would happily bet that many of you have seen something similar in a Facebook feed or an inspirational poster or even on a Tee shirt. It was too long to quote here, but I can give you a flavour of its theme with these words ‘If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep… … then you are richer than 75 per cent of this world.’ I suspect you can imagine the rest. A list of things we in Western Europe are mostly protected from, or have been for most of the last 75 years. In addition to shelter, clothing and food, war, tyranny, torture and endemic disease are all mentioned.
It’s important to be reminded of what we have, of our good fortune due to accident of birth. It is, I suspect most of us agree, important to remain humble and grateful, whether to a deity or fate or just plain good luck.
It is, however, important to recognise that even with these advantages; we still feel pain - physically and emotionally; we still grieve and struggle with illness – our own and that of our loved-ones; we are still damaged by the actions of others and burdened with our own self-doubt and existential uncertainty. You see, well intentioned truisms like the one I came across have a darker flipside. It is possible to acknowledge all of the above and still retain some compassion for yourself, but all too often (actually daily) I hear friends, colleagues, family or clients using a version of the phrase ‘Other people have it worse.’ Admit it, you’ve said it yourself… so have I. But stop for a moment and take a step back from this apparently positive statement.
When do we have it bad enough to complain? When is it okay to sit down and cry; to acknowledge our pain? I think the truth is, many of us believe it isn’t okay unless someone dies. That’s the only time you have a free-pass to anguish, but even then, it’s probably time-limited.
But someone always has it worse. By definition, unless you are truly the most tragic, disadvantaged, poorly, uncared for wretch in the world, someone has it worse. And if you look hard enough you’ll find someone in your workplace, neighbourhood, circle of friends, family, town, county … you get my point! Someone who has it worse; someone who is suffering pain you can’t imagine; loss you’ll never know. But what right have they to be worn down by life? After all, I can guarantee they can find someone worse off.
There is a benign tyranny in phrases like ‘Someone has it worse.’ It invalidates the experience of the person struggling.
You might think people don’t say these kind of things to others. I’d agree. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone being so emotionally tone-deaf in day to day conversation. I do, however, hear people using it about themselves on a daily basis. I think I’ve spotted a pattern and it may not surprise you. In almost every case, the message was passed on in the family. I regularly sit with young people who were dealing with real difficulties and immense emotional strain who quote the mother, father or grandparent who instilled this message in them. They are often ashamed of their feelings; they see them as self-indulgent and weak. And they learned this at the same time as learning to read or count to ten. Of course the intent was kind and supportive. Someone was probably trying to help the young person to be socially acceptable; to instil a sense of gratitude and humility, both of which can be undervalued commodities in our world. Unfortunately, the effect was to cut off a route to expression, to invalidate feelings.
Let’s face it, it feels not only self-indulgent but actually impolite to acknowledge our own sadness. But it isn’t polite to suffer in silence, and even if it was, polite doesn’t necessarily equate to right. Although it has great social value, politeness is a veneer, a branch of ‘manners’ which at it’s worse is only a small step from the farcical ‘etiquette’ invented by Louis 14th at Versailles. If politeness stops us from doing good (for others or ourselves) it is not serving its only valid purpose. And this form of politeness doesn’t protect us from experiencing big, difficult emotions, it stops us from acknowledging and expressing them. And one thing I know is true from working with others and from my own experience is that if we don’t experience our pain it will come show up over and over again until we deal with it. It will seep out in our relationships, our habits, our studies, our work and crucially in our health. It is at the heart of much of the anxiety and depression which dogs so many of us. Emotions need to be addressed to be processed and denying their existence because ‘others have it worse’ is not helpful.
The truth is, it has to be okay to feel sad or scared, vulnerable or angry (yes, even angry!) It’s okay to express these things. It doesn’t change your experience just because someone else has it worse. If we ignore our own difficulties, does that make them feel better? There is no value in comparing our pain.
So what should we do when we hear someone say ‘Someone has it worse’, or one of the variants such as ‘can’t complain’ or ‘I just need to get over myself’. I think we need to offer the empathy and kindness they can’t offer themselves; Reassure them that you are happy to listen; Remind them it is ok to feel sad and talk about it; Point out that they aren’t stealing someone else’s pain and not acknowledging it doesn’t help anyone.
There is another unattributed saying that does the rounds. It goes like this ‘Saying you can't be sad because someone may have it worse is like saying you can't be happy because someone else might have it better.’ Makes you think, doesn’t it?