Minimizing Is Not a Bra!

It is NOT “all small stuff”!

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy the essay, “Feeling Our Feelings”, which can be located in the Archived material from October 14, 2020.

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.