Something I hear over and over again from clients is, “It feels so selfish for me to worry about myself when other people have it worse,” or, “Well, I know I really shouldn’t feel this way when other people are suffering more.” Some variation of this has come up dozens, maybe hundreds of times in the years I’ve been practicing, and before that, it was something I ran up against on a personal level.
There's a whole lot of suffering in the world, with so many different ways for people to be hurt and not have the basic things they need in order to be okay and healthy, and also such a variety of kinds of pain to feel.
This has been at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds over the last few weeks as we’ve watched the crisis at the border unfolding. Children, some still nursing, taken forcibly from their parents. Kids kept in cages and prisons. Parents agreeing to give up their asylum claims in order to be reunited with their children, only to be deported while their kids remain in detention here. The cruelty and suffering are breathtaking.
So how can we sit in therapy and talk about our own worries and pains when there is a scared kid in a cage crying for her mother?
I work with a lot of thoughtful people who have no shortage of empathy for their friends, community members, or fellow humans who are suffering, but somehow it’s always so much harder to extend that empathy and compassion to themselves. In fact, for many of these big-hearted people, finding a way to give themselves permission to care for themselves as well as others is a crucial part of the therapy process. When they’re able to aim all that heart back at themselves as well as those around them, the path forward becomes clearer and the challenges that brought them to my office are less intractable.
Sometimes I hear this from people who look outwardly successful, the ones who went to prestigious schools or are seen as invaluable contributors at work. Sometimes I hear it from people who have experienced painful traumas in their lives, such as being abused as a child. Not infrequently, I hear it from people who fit into both those categories at the same time.
It used to be that I talked about how pain can’t be compared. “There’s no pain olympics!” I’d say. It’s a useful concept and I still say that sometimes, but these days I like to delve deeper.
So how do we reconcile this:
Some people are starving and homeless. Some people have no family or friends. Some people live in war zones or are enslaved or living in terror. They are in pain. I am fed, and clothed, and sheltered. I have people in my life who love me. I am generally safe and have access to what I need to survive. And I am still in pain.
For some people, focusing on how others are suffering more is an (often subconscious) way of avoiding feeling the pain inside. When we say we aren’t entitled to feel the way we do because others have better reasons to feel this way, on some level we deny our own experience. We deny the things that make us feel bad, and this gives us a bit of distance from the painful feelings. The logic goes something like this: I don’t have a right to feel this way, therefore the things that have hurt me must not be that bad, therefore I don’t need to feel this way. This is a short term solution, though, because the feeling doesn’t actually go away and eventually it breaks through to the surface again.
Sometimes, denying the validity of our own pain is a reflection of feelings of worthlessness. When we don’t like ourselves or believe that we’re bad or unworthy people, we can’t feel compassion for ourselves. If we believe ourselves to be unworthy, then our pain must also be unworthy. This distorted view of ourselves and our value as human beings means we can’t take our emotional life seriously.
Other times, this attitude has its roots in feelings of shame. We may have been taught that it’s a bad and shameful thing to have so-called negative emotions like anger or sadness. We may have been taught to put a smile on our face and pretend to be happy even when we feel the opposite, because it’s the right or polite or nice or ladylike thing to do. We may have noticed as children that when we shared emotions that made people uncomfortable, others pulled away and we didn’t get the closeness and love that we craved, so we learned not to share any feeling that might make others unhappy. In the end, we taught ourselves to pull away from any emotion that might be uncomfortable and to see others’ suffering as real or justified while seeing our own as unseemly.
Sometimes, this outlook is the result of having a high capacity for empathy. When we can feel others’ pain deeply and find it easy to walk in others’ shoes, we can feel overwhelmed by the degree of suffering on the planet. Our own distress can seem so small and insignificant next to the pain of millions of people.
This brings us back to the original crisis: when innocent kids are being held in cages, isn’t it the worst sort of navel-gazing to sit in therapy and talk about our feelings?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is this:
The world is broken. We are a part of the world. Every time we heal some part of ourselves, we are healing a part of the world. When we become stronger, more resilient people, we become that much more able to live lives full of love and compassion for others. When we take good care of ourselves and our own broken, wounded places, we're not only caring for ourselves, we're ensuring we have the energy and stamina to fight for the things that matter to us, whether that's our family, our children, our neighbors, or our world.
When we are comfortable and confident in who we are, we have less need to judge others and we can show up in our lives and relationships in the kind of loving, nonjudgmental way that the world so desperately needs. When we are healed and whole and full of love, we shine a light on everyone around us to help them find their way to a more loving, peaceful place.
Your heart is big enough to love frightened children in cages AND yourself, so go ahead and do both. The world needs more light, whatever light you have to share, and the world needs more people who are brave enough to do the hard work of healing their wounds. The world needs you to be your best, most loving, most peaceful self so you can help show the way.