How to cope with your emotions when you're convinced others have it worse
In my counselling sessions and in my personal life, I've been hearing a lot of people going through hard times minimise or downplay their pain and problems. Here are some examples of what I mean:
I shouldn't be feeling this way because there are people with much bigger problems.
I know someone who is going through the same thing that I am, but they seem to be fine.
Everyone else seems to cope; why can't I?
But other people have it worse than me.
It was sad to hear them say these things about themselves because what was happening in their lives was indeed difficult! People were grieving the death of loved ones, struggling with depression and anxiety, being bullied at school, coping with physical illness, dealing with relationship breakdowns, and feeling like they couldn't live up to other's expectations. These are not easy things.
I noticed that minimising their problems added an extra layer of feeling bad on top of the difficult emotions they were already having in their situation. It is like the icing on a cake: shame and guilt for struggling, anger at themselves, disgust, hopelessness about ever getting better. It led them to pretend that everything was fine, avoid asking for support, and kept them in a rut of destructive behaviours. When these people are in therapy, it can even stop them from discussing their problems with me - and I'm there as a psychologist to help them!
There are three things that I think are important to remember when you notice you're having a strong emotional reaction to something and it is tempting to downplay it.
Understand and validate your pain
Sometimes hearing yourself out on an emotional level needs to happen first, before any practical actions can be taken. Here are some ways to do this:
See if you can put a name to the emotions that came up for you: sadness, anger, fear, shock, disgust, shame, helplessness... and so on.
Take a few deep breaths.
Notice where you feel the emotional pain in your body.
List all the reasons why you might be feeling strong emotions: For example, the situations at play, the people involved and your relationship to them, things you are worried about happening, factors that made it worse (e.g., tiredness, illness, having many things go wrong at once), and things you care about that are at stake.
Finish this sentence: It makes sense that I am feeling this way because...
If that last step is hard to do, imagine what you would tell someone you love and respect in the same situation.
You can also be understanding of the fact that you're minimising your pain in the first place. In Australia, we live in a society that:
Values keeping silent about emotions: "No one likes a whinger."
Promotes keeping calm and carrying on: "She'll be right, mate."
Points out how much worse it could be: "At least least you have [insert thing to be grateful for]."
Scorns, pities, and makes fun of people who are struggling.
Therefore, we're used to putting forward our best side to everyone. This is especially true with social media - and on the flip side, we compare ourselves to the highlight reel of other people's lives. On a more personal level, perhaps your family and early experiences weren't helpful or supportive when you showed emotion, so over time you learned to push emotions away and pretend things are fine when they're not. It makes so much sense that we minimise our own pain.
Be kind to yourself
Being kind involves changing the way you think about your emotional pain. It's important to remind yourself that there is no cosmic scale that ranks people's suffering. You can be in pain, AND (not "but") there are others also suffering. This image came to mind:
Text reads: "How deep is the mud? Depends on who you ask. We all go through the same stuff differently."
I love this image because it highlights that our ability to cope is influenced our history, current circumstances, skills we've learned, and the resources we have available. You might be the Jack Russell struggling through the mud in some situations, and in others you might be the Golden Retriever barely getting dirty.
Being kind also involves doing nice things for yourself so you can wade through the mud. Think of the times you have felt - even for just a moment - a sense of relaxation, purpose, meaning, or fulfillment. If it's possible, do those things. People differ on what activities will achieve this, but here are some self-care suggestions to get you started.
Find the right audience for support
Even if it's true that things could be worse for you, it's still helpful to have supportive people around you during a hard time and before things get worse.
If someone could do something to make things easier, what could that be? Who do you feel safe with, and who makes you feel heard?
.Some people find it useful to check in with the person they're about to share with, for example:
I was hoping to talk about [problem], would you be up for that?
I'm really struggling. Is this a good time to talk about [problem]?
This might be heavy, so let me know if you need to tap out of the conversation.
It is also useful to let people know what you are hoping for, whether that be a listening ear but not advice/problem-solving, a hug, someone to watch a bad TV with, company while running errands, and so on. This gives people a better idea of whether they can help meet your needs.
For situations where you and others are affected by the same incident or event, a Clinical Psychologist named Susan Silk developed the Ring Theory as a guideline for seeking support. Basically, give comfort to the people most affected by the trauma, and get emotional/practical support from people less affected by the trauma.
Seeing a psychologist can help with untangling the above. We are outside of your situation and can therefore see things more clearly. And couldn't most people benefit from someone compassionate and objective beside them, even if things weren't too bad?
If you would like to try counselling and you live in Perth, Western Australia, please have a read about what seeing a psychologist involves and feel free to contact me for more information. It helps to have someone wading through the mud with you.