Feeling Our Feelings

§  Others will always endure life situations, grief, and loss far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine  §

Some years ago, a few days before my birthday, I mentioned to the man I was then dating that each year when my birthday rolled around, I felt a little sad.  Before I could expound on what I meant (that my melancholy was comprised of many factors: regret for goals not achieved during the year; memories of past birthdays that were composed more of pain than of celebration; even the fear of aging without having accomplished anything more in life than “just getting by”), my date responded by forcefully rebuking me.  How could I have the gall to say this to him, he demanded angrily. His life was so much worse, so much difficult, than mine—in fact, than anything I had ever been through.  I had no reason, no right, to feel sad, he declared.

Although today I would mount a spirited rejoinder to his words, at the time, victimized by his constant emotional abuse of me, I was effectively muzzled.  I did not even dare offer in response the unpalatable truth that nothing in the problems he was enduring—and they were many—was the result of a capricious and unjust fate.  He had, by his own poor behavior, drawn every one of his difficulties down upon his own head.

But I kept this and my other thoughts to myself, and went home to cry in solitude.

That decade-old memory came sharply to mind, though, not long ago when an old friend lost both of her beloved pets within a few days of one another.  Heartbroken, she grieved openly for a long while—whereupon an unhelpful acquaintance pointed out to her that others had lost pets, too; in fact, in the middle of pandemic, others were enduring griefs that were far worse than mere pet loss.

Like a chain of disturbing links, that led me to remember another such situation–a family affair described to me by a friend—one a thousand times more awful than the loss of a pet.  The friend’s relative had given birth to a premature baby who survived only a few weeks. The young woman struggled through, but was, as are all who endure such an agonizing event, indelibly marked by it.  Yet, rather than giving her greater compassion toward others who were enduring pain, she instead crowned herself with a halo of martyrdom. When another family member confessed to seeking therapy for emotional challenges, the bereaved mother remarked scathingly, “Well, if I could get through what I did, I’m sure you can put up with a few little problems!”

I never find any of this—this scolding and shaming, the rebuking or minimizing another’s sorrow or difficulty–to be at all a helpful attitude, neither to the suffering individual, nor even to ourselves.  Yes, it is absolutely true that others can and will and do endure life situations, grief, and loss, far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine. But none of that alters the truth of our individual situation, nor demands that we relinquish our own sadness on behalf of their pain.  If we were to always surrender our right to our feelings because some other person endured a worse event, then none of us, ever, would be permitted to feel or acknowledge any negative emotion, from the most minor upset to the most unbearable loss. 

Nor can we personally experience amother person’s response to a problem.  Even if we endure a similar situation, each of us will find that we not only have different reactions—reactions built both on our own past experiences and our personality—but different levels of support or abandonment in our travail, as well.  No two human beings, enduring precisely equivalent incidents, will have a comparable experience.

The truth of the matter is that someone, somewhere, always endures something worse than we do.  Someone is always in more pain: physical, mental, emotional.  Someone has always had a worse childhood, a more abusive spouse or devastating financial ruin, a graver illness, a more terrible addiction—something more wholly dreadful than anything we have known.  Their agony does not, however, deny us our own sorrow, or preclude our need to acknowledge unhappiness.

We are each diamonds, rough diamonds, with personal stress points that, if tapped, will not result in a strong, beautiful and faceted stone, but will instead shatter us into broken bits—mere shards of ourselves.  We need to acknowledge this fact when someone of our acquaintance speaks their sorrow aloud; to permit them to feel their feelings, fully and completely.  It is not necessary that we join them in their emotional low point.  All that is ever needed is to say, gently and with genuine compassion, “I can see that you’re troubled.”  “I really regret that you’re stressed.”  “I’m truly sorry that you are grieving.”  “I care that you feel sad.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, which you can find in the Archives from August 5, 2020.