It’s been 9 weeks since quarantine began. That’s nine weeks that houses have been filled with family members who usually scatter in different directions.
We’ve stopped coming and going. Now we’re “sheltering in place.”
If you’re a parent, this means you’re homeschooling your children, making every single meal at home and trying to keep up your workload from the dining room table while spending all day in the same home as your kids and spouse.
That’s 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, with no evening escape to the yoga studio. No joyful breaks to run errands. No private phone calls. No glasses of wine with your girlfriend. And no stroll through Indigo, or inspiration shopping at HomeSense.
When your girlfriend (who you haven’t seen in over 3 months) calls you up at night and asks the most loaded question “how you doing with all this?”
You open your mouth to give an honest answer. You want to tell her you’re at your wit’s end, that you haven’t baked a single loaf of bread and it’s been weeks since you worked out. You want to tell her that you’re starting to question your sanity, and your relationship.
But just as you go to tell her your real, honest, raw truth, this tiny thought runs through your mind; I shouldn’t complain, so many people have it so much worse.
So, you gloss over your story and say something about it being tough, “but at least the dog’s getting more company these days” and finish up with, “we’re lucky we haven’t lost our jobs and will be ok. You?”
Deep down, you know you live in a neighbourhood of parents who, just like you, are trying to keep it all together while entertaining their kids and putting 3 healthy-ish meals per day on the table.
You know you’re not the only one who’s tired, a little scared, and a lot overwhelmed.
And you can’t help but wonder how long will this be your new normal? How long will you be cut off from friends and support from family? How long will I last in this version of reality that looks like your life, but doesn’t feel like it at all?
But you hesitate to say these thoughts out loud, even to your best friend, because you know how incredibly blessed you are to be healthy, and safe at home with your family, while people around the world are not.
This Covid-19 pandemic sure is bringing our “stuff” to the surface. One thing it’s dredged up in droves is this tiny toxic thought process called Comparative Suffering.
Comparative Suffering Explained
It’s not something that’s new or unique to this situation. I bet you can think of many conversations when you felt guilty sharing your feelings so you covered them up with “…but how can I complain when I know other people have it so much worse?”
This is comparative suffering.
We do it to save face, to relieve guilt, to sugar coat our unpleasant feelings because somehow, we think they’ll be easier to swallow if we remind ourselves that someone else has it much worse.
The thing about comparative suffering is that it doesn’t make us feel lighter, it just makes us feel more alone. There’s a powerful healing quality to being witnessed in our struggles, and letting someone else know when we’re in pain.
Like when your girlfriend calls you up and admits she feels like a bad Mom for yelling at her kids after she’d had a long day at work. It’s cathartic for both of you to hear because you both realize you’re not alone. We all struggle.
Brené Brown says this about comparative suffering:
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over an empty nest. I’m not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer…”
Just as powerfully, she adds—
“The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who’s going through a divorce.”
We need to remember that empathy is not a limited resource. We heal more quickly together, partly because sharing removes the temptation to shame ourselves for being wounded in the first place.
Feelings are for Feeling
No one wants to go on about their problems. Yet, when we can’t even admit to having uncomfortable feelings, we’re denying parts of ourselves the healing of being seen, heard and loved.
Let’s get one thing out in the open – there’s no shame in feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, angry (or any other unpleasant emotion). Ever.
You’re not a bad person for having hard feelings… even if you have a great life. Especially if you have a great life, you can heal and let others heal by sharing that things are hard for you at times too.
So, instead of withholding love from ourselves and saving it for “the suffering” (a group of people we know are out there and have it way worse), what if we try compassion instead?
What if we agree not to evaluate, compare, and tally each other’s pain? What if we stop judging ourselves and our friends for their feelings because comparatively it could be worse?
Instead we could spread empathy. We could admit that the house feels like a zoo and we cry at night because hugs from our friends seem like distant memories. We could listen to a friend share about their loved one in the hospital and not feel like it diminishes our right to feel like things are hard in our own home.
We can keep our struggles in perspective and allow ourselves to express them.
Both are true and real.
Both are feelings to be felt.
And everyone deserves to feel their feelings.