How many times have I been in a support group and someone says, “I’m not like them. Why should I be here?” Or maybe, “You’ve never been through it, so how would you know what it’s like?” I think that when people say this, they’re really asking the question: Will anyone get it? Will anyone take the time to hear, to see, to suffer with me?
We live unique lives, bound by a certain time and a certain place and a physical make-up that is unique to only us. Even identical twins, those favorite subjects of Nature vs. Nurture studies, experience day-to-day occurrences differently. No two people can ever truly live the same life; this is just an existential truth. We each go to sleep alone in our own skin.
That can be a scary thought, a way to justify isolation because “no one’s been through what I’ve been through, so why bother”. OR, this realization can compel us to overcome the divides we experience between and among people. I’ve heard it said that the human heart is the same the world over. Looking back over history, there are countless stories of love, loss, lust, jealousy, rage, despair, confusion, and joy. We may express these differently, but humankind contains more commonality than disparity.
The word “compassion” means to suffer with someone. What makes someone compassionate? Does a person need to have had an eating disorder to know what self-contempt feels like? Must a person be the CEO to know the pressure of unrealistically high expectations? Could a child console an adult?
We can get caught in the trap of comparing our suffering. “It wasn’t really that bad, it could have been worse.” “It was just emotional abuse, he never actually hit me.” “Well, at least I only ______.” (You can fill in the blank.) In these ways, we make light of our struggles and minimize them away. The text of these beliefs may be true, but the context—the need to validate one’s pain—is what demonstrates the function and usefulness (or not) of the statement. Of course, there usually is somebody worse off than you, some situation that is unimaginably difficult compared to whatever is troubling you in that moment. Remember that saying, “I cried because I had no shoes; then, I met a man who had no feet”? Sometimes comparison serves as a reminder to count your blessings. Other times, however, we might just be projecting our own interpretations and experiences on what we think we see happening with someone else.
Then again, when comparing how we react, the opposite phenomenon happens. We see ourselves being unresponsive in a situation and, again, think something could be wrong with us. For example, when a tragic loss occurs, people don’t always know how to respond. They may look to others to see, “Are they crying? Are they having nightmares about it? Why don’t I seem affected? I should be upset, but I’m just numb.” I propose that there is nothing inherently wrong with how a person reacts to a challenging situation. When we let the comparison of struggles get in the way of compassion for one another, then we’ve missed an opportunity for connection and community. I cannot know your pain, but I have known pain and can be supportive while your heart aches. I may not have your fears, but I have known fear and can withhold judgment as we work through it. I cannot know your joy, but I can see it on your face and hear it in your voice and celebrate it with you anyway.
If you are struggling with compassion and comparison, contact Janice through this webpage to set up an appointment.