She wanted to talk to me about cancer, but she hesitated. She was worried because she thought her cancer wasn’t as bad as mine. When I finally realized the reason for the hesitation, for the trepidation in her voice, my heart dropped.
She had just apologized because she thought her cancer wasn’t bad enough. No one should ever have to do that.
It hurts to think I might have given that impression, but I know it’s not just me. This issue of comparison is part of our culture. We compare cars, houses, job titles, the behavior of our kids, and even our pain.
Comparing pain is insidious
We are measured against others throughout our lives (what is a Bell curve, anyway?), but at the same time we are cautioned against comparing wealth and power, and warned against envy and conceit. But when it comes to comparing pain, it’s actively endorsed. ‘Don’t feel bad, there are children in [insert third world nation that it is currently en vogue to pity] who have it so much worse than you.’ Comparing pain is deeply ingrained in our culture.
Don’t feel bad, we say.
Here’s another way to look at that: In the act of trying to console someone that way, we’re actually invalidating their pain. We’re attaching shame to the pain, and yes, that makes everything worse. No one should feel shame for experiencing pain. I don’t care if they just stubbed their toe, that shit hurts and comparing it to a brain tumor doesn’t make it hurt less.
Pity is not compassion
Also, a point about pity. Pity is condescending and dehumanizing, whether it is directed at someone on the other side of the world, or your next door neighbor. It others, creating or deepening the “us and them” perspective, and moving us further away from compassion and connection.
A few years ago, Brené Brown said that “Comparative suffering corrodes compassion and connection. It makes us judgmental and critical. Belittling our own suffering doesn’t elevate the suffering of others. It throws us into a ‘race for the bottom.’ It disconnects us from the truth that we are all inextricably connected – we all have strength and we all have struggle. We all need and we all give.“
I’ve seen the truth of that.
Your pain is valid
Whatever it is, your pain is valid. It is worthy of your attention. It is worthy of acknowledgement. It doesn’t matter if someone else has a different pain, or something some might consider to be a worse pain. You have pain. Deluding yourself, or trying to make excuses or rationalizing why you shouldn’t be experiencing pain won’t make it go away.
I heard a quote some years ago that has stuck with me over time. I have no idea who said it, and since I can’t remember the exact wording, I’m having trouble hunting down the source, but here it is in essence: telling yourself your pain is invalid because someone had it worse than you is the same thing as telling yourself your joy is invalid because someone had it better than you.
Avoiding toxic positivity
There is a cult of positivity in our culture as well – Suck it up. Paste on a smile. Hang in there. Fake it till you make it – And there are times and places for this approach. But positivity that is dismissive and forces delusion is toxic. We all need a place, a person, something somewhere that will allow us to let down our guard and get real.
Glennon Doyle once wrote, “You know, what strikes me is how desperately we all need to know that we are seen and heard. We don’t need our lives to be different, or easier, we just need someone to see the pain. To know what we’ve faced and overcome. To say: Yes. I see this. This is real. We don’t need a magician to take it all away – we just need a witness.”
When someone opens their heart, chances are they don’t need someone to come rushing in to fix everything, they don’t need delusions, they need a compassionate ear, they need a chance to release their story.
Some things have to be released before we can be free of them, or at least get up and move forward. Sometimes we have to acknowledge we have a problem before we can get help. Sometimes we just need permission to feel our own pain without shame.