There was a time in my life when I believed the bad or unfortunate things I encountered in my life were just the world throwing fireballs of shit at me. Maybe I had done something immoral or unethical in a past life and it was catching up with me, or maybe I just got dealt a difficult hand. Time after time I took to heart my struggles and questioned what I had done to deserve what seemed like constant hurdles in front of me. It wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I realized that life just simply is not easy. Not for me, not for anyone. We all face our personal struggles. Some of us may have a lot of money and that helps mitigate financial fireballs but that does not mean people with a lot of money are happy, fulfilled or healthy. It does not even mean they do not worry about money. It just means that those people can think less about the potential of financial troubles. Some of us have emotionally healthy families that can help cushion the blow of life’s struggles. That does not necessarily make it easier to feel the hard things in the moment. Nor will it protect them from encountering people who are skill manipulators, who would take advantage of the same kindness and compassion shown to them by their families growing up.
Once I came to a place in my life where I realized and accepted that the crap things life threw at me was not a me thing, I began feeling self-pity less frequently. Rather than wade through shit cursing under my breath that I was the only one, I waded through the shit cursing under my breath knowing others were wading through it too. I thought such a revelation would help me feel differently; better but it did not. Knowing other people were dealing with fireballs did not, in any way, shape or form, change how I felt about my own fireballs. I verbalized this revelation like many of the life lessons I had learned, to those who I trusted enough to share my innermost thoughts and feelings. I have always needed to say the thing to solidify it, make it real to me, but in this case, also because I was confused. Why didn’t I feel better knowing this? I came across people during my journey who pointed out that I should not complain because others had it worse or that I should be grateful. I understood this to be true as I had awoken to the fact that the world does not revolve solely around my personal experiences. So why was I still so perturbed?
I spent the next decade moving through the world feeling shame over my own feelings. Then, it finally hit me, and the answer was so simple. So easily articulated that I was surprised I had not thought of it sooner. It came in the form of two words; at least. What a terrible way to begin any sentence. You’ve been physically assaulted? At least you got away from your abuser. You’re having a hard time saying no to an employer who is sucking the life out of you? At least you have a job. Such a lucky human to spend countless days living in fear or to have eroding mental or physical health because you are being taken advantage of! You should be more grateful.
‘At least’ is still the go-to line used by too many of those who seek comfort. I did not like how life struggles made me feel but the trusted person in front of me thought I should be grateful. As my mother will tell you, since I was a child, she would share the why of something and I often could not blindly accept it. Not until I was able to take it away and think about it more on my own. Mull over the concept, how it made me feel, and whether there were other things to take into consideration. So when I heard these words; ‘at least’, what was the feeling I was having? It occurred to me in my discomfort that the reason it bothered me so much is that it was completely and utterly invalidating. When it hit me, it felt like betrayal. Why is it that someone whom you care for, and is supposed to care for you, would say such a thing in a time of such emotional or psychological pain?
I had not requested that my trusted confidant join me in the shit. Only to listen about it. And it dawned on me, that I was asking them to join me in the shit simply by asking them to listen. They were not betraying me. They were hurting with me and they did not want to feel the pain anymore than I did. In an effort to disconnect from the discomfort I had evoked by sharing my experience, they turned to a strategy that brought them comfort. By invalidating my feelings, they were separating themselves from discomfort, not realizing that doing so was inherently the opposite of what they likely wanted to be – supportive.
I doubt in most circumstances people are even aware of why they responded this way. While I had not made a habit of invalidating others using those particular words, I had used my own strategies to do the same thing; avoidance, choosing to do something kind for someone while they were venting, even something so small as asking someone if they need a tissue while they spill their heart could be used as a strategy to break the heaviness of a pain-filled story. It was one of the many tipping points of understanding people. One of the many tipping points of understanding myself.
I do not believe there is a right way or wrong way to feel about something. A common way; maybe, but not a wrong way. But this understanding can only be achieved when someone is truly secure in their own thoughts and feelings. And in this moment of reflection, I acknowledged that I had not previously felt self-assured and therefore, allowed the discomfort of others to make me question my own feelings.
Knowing that other people were wading through shit too did not change how I felt about my own challenges because they are completely independent of each other. But it did help me understand that sometimes I needed to lift my head up so I could catch someone else on the way down into the muck.
Recently saw an IG post from one of the hundred hashtags I follow, most of which are related to inspiration and cancer. It said, ‘You can’t be happy for others if you aren’t happy for yourself.’ I recall vividly the repulsion I felt when I read it. I’m sure the look on my face would have been similar to the one I make when a single piece of cilantro hits my tongue (ifkyk). My old habits and false thoughts forced me to question whether my reaction was wrong. Within a millisecond I snapped myself out of it and thought, ‘What a load of crap!’. I instantly wanted to reach out to each and every one of the thousands of people who liked that post to walk them through why they wasted a social media double tap. If I could, I would say to them, the only person who is responsible for your happiness is you. Just as, the only person responsible for my happiness is me. So, if I am unhappy, I will take responsibility for changing that. And when you reach the summit of whatever challenge you have overcome, I will clap for you knowing that your journey is your own as mine is my own. Even if I am still knee-deep in shit. You earned that achievement and I will not attempt to take that from you just because I am still wading through it.
Neither our emotional experiences nor our success or lack thereof has anything to do with anyone else. Though sometimes we find ourselves stuck in our own emotions. We want to protect ourselves from the pain of others, we want to protect ourselves from the unexpected pain we feel when someone else shares their pain; our empathy poking through, and that’s ok but if we do not acknowledge that we all have an individual emotional experience we risk healthy relationships. To build and maintain healthy relationships, we must remember that the instinct to protect ourselves from our own pain may be the very thing that pushes people we care most about away from us. Instead, we have a magical opportunity to lean into our own discomfort, to explore why we feel so strongly. Maybe it gives us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. Maybe it brings us closer to the people we care about. And if we choose not to do those things, what we can do is acknowledge that our individual experiences deserve validation and respect.
No matter whether we will allow ourselves the opportunity to grow, what we do not have the right to do is poo poo on other people’s experiences. There is simply no place in the world for ‘at least’ and so I have struck it from my vocabulary, and I hope you will consider doing the same.
Until next time, take good care. We’ve got this.