I got this quote from the always-excellent Ardra Shepard’s Tripping on Air (IG: @ms__trippingonair), where Ardra shares her journey with multiple sclerosis, including navigating others’ reactions to the way she handles it.
This is a concept my mom taught me a long time ago. At first glance, it seems self-absorbed, and obviously it’s important to keep things in perspective. When I was 22 and complaining because of some perceived slight from an acquaintance while we were out at a bar, it was important to be reminded that my problems weren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things – that others had it so much worse and were dealing with real issues.
But, that same year, my grandmother had a stroke and had to move in with my parents who were dealing with such major financial problems that I was jolted into a new and unexpected level of responsibility while my father’s law partner and best friend was suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that would kill him only a few months later, and my parents couldn’t attend my college graduation because of the convergence of all those issues, my mom let me off the hook.
Yes, it was true that I had food to eat, a roof over my head and wasn’t living in a war-torn country. There were so many people worse off than I. But she let me know that sometimes it’s okay and even important to take a minute for yourself to, to grieve and even feel a little sorry for yourself. Hearing my mother say that shocked me because although she’s pretty good at playing a martyr (sorry, Mom!), promoting feeling sorry for oneself isn’t generally her style. But she’s dealt with her fair share of true tragedy, trauma and loss, so her perspective was important.
As an adult, I go back and forth between “it could be worse” and allowing myself to feel my emotions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m always aware that literally billions of people have it worse than I do in every manner of life circumstances, including those that cause me the most pain: health, finances, loss and family issues.
But it doesn’t take away from the fact that these things DO cause me a lot of sadness, anxiety and pain. As mentioned ad nauseum, I’m literally in physical pain all the time. When I don’t give myself some room to acknowledge, grieve and even wallow (in moderation), it backs up on me, and when eventually I can’t hold it in anymore, the emotional pain becomes a tidal wave that I can’t manage.
I know I’m not the only one. Just because we say to ourselves “It could be worse” does not mean we’re OK. I think we want to say it partly because we don’t want to be self-absorbed jerks, but also because we feel like we are supposed to “get over it,” whatever “it” is. See the silver lining! Be optimistic!
Sometimes people say “It could be worse” because another person pressures them to feel that way. That phrase can sometimes be almost weaponized. I was once was in a conversation with someone whose wife had died of cancer and he had gone to a “grief course.” He recounted the anger he felt at another person in the group who was grieving the loss of her 81-year-old father. He thought she had no business being in the group because he felt the loss of his wife at a younger age was more painful, and that “she needed to get over it. Other people have it worse.” Never mind that he knew nothing about the woman’s relationship with her father or that he said in that very same conversation how everyone is supposed to grieve in their own time. The woman’s feelings made him uncomfortable in his own grief, and didn’t “measure up.”
In the Tripping on Air post’s comments, a woman shared that her own doctor told her it could be worse when they found that her MS was progressing. I experienced that myself when I explained my extreme fatigue to my first rheumatologist 10 years ago. He told me to have children because then I’d really know what exhaustion was. Did it matter that I was a 28-year-old who could barely move sometimes because of fatigue and pain? No, because “it could be worse!” Perhaps he was compensating for not having an answer, perhaps he was truly that flippant. I don’t know. But what would that attitude have gotten me? I have children, and yes, my exhaustion did get worse, as did a number of other symptoms. But now we know that it wasn’t all in my head (I knew that then and said so). Would I be any healthier now if I had just been thankful I wasn’t as tired as I could be? Did Elsa make anything better by concealing-not-feeling? I think we all know the answer to that. (Ahem, it’s “no.”)
I’m in no way suggesting we ignore the suffering of others. There’s sadly quite enough of that. And of course it’s important to keep things in perspective and not let negativity take over our lives. But we need to get away from the idea that just because something could be worse or because someone else is suffering more that our own struggles must be left by the wayside.
Caring for others and taking care of ourselves do not have to be mutually exclusive. While I’ve met a few women over 30 who haven’t matured past that teenage tendency to amplify their problems and comfort over others’, most women I know live to do for everyone else first. We think that by downplaying all of our struggles, even to ourselves, we’re somehow better serving our families, our friends, our jobs, even our communities. We think it makes us “strong,” and that being sad or mad at a bad situation in our lives makes us weak.
In reality, working through our emotions fully and authentically is healthy and makes for better versions of ourselves. It doesn’t make you ungrateful or unaware of the blessings in your life. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the plight of others. It just means that you have a challenge and you are doing what you need to do to meet it head on. It doesn’t get stronger than that.