Let's Stop Minimizing Our Pain Just Because We Can Compare It to Something "Worse"

Why not focus on healing what hurts vs. hypothesizing about how much worse it could be?
Publish date:
September 22, 2016
cheating, dealbreakers, heartbreak, emotional health

The other day, I was having one of those conversations with a close friend who is going through a tough time emotionally that made me wish I could magically pluck my friend’s pain out of her heart and also go bitch-slap her long-term romantic partner, whose behavior was the immediate source of the pain. After living together for the bulk of their 10-year relationship, my friend has recently found out that her partner has been doing some things in secret, and she is hurt.

That statement is all I need to support my friend and be there for her in this painful moment, but as we spoke, I was struck by how much my friend was minimizing her feelings about what her boyfriend did, instead repeating multiple examples of what he didn't do.

She feels that he didn’t "officially" cheat on her. He flew someone out to meet him while he was away on a business trip, but it's "not that bad" because she knows the person, they're all friends, and my friend's partner said they had shared a bed and kissed goodnight and that's all. He had also been using dating apps, but he says he didn't meet up with people from them. And so on.

My friend described her recent crying fits, her feelings of betrayal, and then almost immediately described any number of other things her partner could've done that would have been "much worse," as though the naming of hypothetical awful things can erase the impact of actual hurtful things.

Of course I don’t blame my friend one bit; her responses totally make sense through the lens of maintaining perspective and not "flying off the handle," but as her friend it seemed to me like she was taking those rational responses too far and had veered into the lane of discounting the legitimacy of her own feelings and her right to have them.

It was also one of those moments when observing that behavior from someone I care about drove home how often I do the same thing to myself.

In our efforts to live our best lives as functioning adults in society, maintaining perspective is a beautiful and necessary skill to have. OF COURSE not all offenses are the same in scale or impact, so they each deserve individual evaluation and, hopefully, a proportionate response. Healthy perspective is crucial, but this…is not that.

What I observed in my good friend, and what I have done too often myself, is that many of us devalue ourselves in comparison to other people and their experiences in a unique way when we are hurting. It can feel like we’re being “mature” or “looking at the big picture” or something, when really we’re skipping over the feelings closest to our hearts in search of some all-encompassing narrative that your situation is NOT, in order to feel better about what it is.

The problem is that paying attention to and thinking of examples of what is NOT happening is a great way to minimize or ignore what IS.

I can’t decide for my friend that she should be angrier or sadder or dictate her response at all, just like I can't pluck her sadness from her heart and make it all better. Nor do I get to decide what should be very/more/most offensive to anyone else, even a close friend, based on my thoughts on the matter. There's a good chance that my friend's partner's behaviors that I described above would truly not be a big deal to someone else, based on their relationship parameters and expectations.

However, if that were the case, there would likely not be so many tears and sleepless nights. Weekends apart would probably not have increased, and I probably wouldn’t be observing my friend in such palpable pain still attempting mental gymnastics to convince herself this was actually "no big deal."

Personally, when something is actually no big deal, I tend not to obsess over it, lose sleep to it, or engage in debates with myself to justify having come to that conclusion in the first place. Of course it’s not always easy to parse emotions logically, which is precisely how we can get so tangled up in them.

That's why it helps me to remember that the arbitrary analogies we may make up in service of protecting our hearts from pain really only end up exacerbating it in the long run. Logically, we know that each situation is different and some comparisons can help maintain perspective, and while certain things are ostensibly worse than others, no one else can decide what feels bad (or "worse") for you.

A relationship dealbreaker for one person might not even make another person bat an eyelash, and only you can know where your threshold is. To do so, we have to allow ourselves permission to feel the things we feel, free of self-judgment and off of the mental scales of justice in our heads.

As I've said many times, if our hearts responded logically and in perfect proportion to our thoughts, life would be an entirely different experience. As it stands, they absolutely do not, so what’s the point of blaming ourselves for that disparity and/or carrying on as though they "should"?

If you can make some sort of case for why you shouldn't feel upset by something, and yet you do, why not focus on healing what hurts vs. hypothesizing about how much worse it could be?

I’ll tell you why not: because we've been sold a lie that feelings are icky unless they fit into a few neat boxes that have been firmly delineated and societally approved. To really stand in your truth and say, "I hurt" is viewed by many as selfish or childish behavior, when in actuality it can be the most adult thing you do. All declaration of suffering is not tantamount to whining or wallowing, and if you can be OK with being as hurt as you are, without obsessing over a Sliding Scale of Insult and Injury, chances are you'll be able to process it more functionally and swiftly.

Maybe my friend's partner's recent behavior really hasn't threatened their union, or maybe it has and they'll still work it out. Or maybe they won't. Maybe a couple where there has been confirmed infidelity also has personal reasons for remaining together, and they are able to do so happily, while another partner might pack their bags and leave over something society deems more minor.

It's important to allow room for your full spectrum of responses to a situation so that you can be most honest with yourself about where your true feelings exist on that spectrum. Being honest about that, as well as making room for the reality that feelings can change and that’s OK too, is often very difficult. We want to be rational and balanced, and emotions are anything but that.

Still, they're real, and if we don't give them the attention they deserve when and how they call for it, they'll demand it at times and in ways far more "inappropriate" than we feared that initial response would have been.

My friend kept saying things like "I’m not gonna leave him" and "Those aren't 'leave-able offenses.'" The pursuit of rational perspective can morph quickly into irrational denial as self-preservation.

Ultimately, that’s not for me to determine, but I do think that if you're upset, starting out focused on what you won't do might obscure your truth about what you truly want to do.

And it could be that you are overreacting in a situation, which could have been pointed out by comparing what you're facing with something much harsher. Even so, overreaction is still a reaction, and it can't be pooh-poohed away simply by virtue of being outsized.

Those emotions, like any that surface within you and move you, bear honest investigation in the interest of good mental health. Your good mental health is subjective and not best served by the comparison game, and that's perfectly OK.