I’ll be honest – I’m exhausted. And I know I am not the first person to express that in the last five minutes. Between the pending election, the rising cases across the country and constant news updates warning us of another spike in cases, and simply the general unrest, our world is holding a lot right now.
I’ve recently, however, found myself doing something I know is unhelpful. It’s something I can easily point out to others when they engage in it. I found myself looking at my own pain, and comparing it to others’ pain: “Yes, I’m feeling all of these feelings, but I have a job so I can’t really complain.”
This is called comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is the practice of ranking, evaluating, and judging painful events. It is detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. And when we do it to ourselves, it becomes that much easier to do it to others. When we engage in comparative suffering, we feel invalidated, as if our grief does not matter. We are unable to navigate our own sufferings. As a way to cope (or maybe to avoid our pain), we minimize others’ pain. This leads to extreme disconnection from others. It reduces our capacity for empathy, and enhances our scarcity mindset (scarcity meaning we believe things or people are “never enough”).
Yes, there are people out there who have it worse than you. And there are people who have it better than you. But this comparison doesn’t make our own pain easier. Pain is pain. And when we don’t honor our pain, it intensifies. When we don’t honor others’ pain, we conserve kindness and empathy. And kindness and empathy are unlimited resources. No one is served in this conservation.
Antony Polonsky, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, refers to this as the “suffering Olympics.” I am not out to win a gold medal in those games! The most important pain I feel is my pain, and the most important pain you feel is your pain (I’m paraphrasing from the great David Kessler, an expert on grief). Pain is an inevitable part of life, and rather than competing, we can use this to connect with one another. I might not know your pain, but I know what it feels like. I might not know what it feels like to be furloughed during this pandemic, but I’ve felt all of the feelings that underlie that situation: fear, uncertainty, anxiety in checking my bank account every hour to make sure I had sufficient funds.
Comparative suffering disconnects us; we engage in a series of empathic fails which, overtime, erodes our relationships. Empathy connects us, and allows our relationships to deepen in a beautiful, vulnerable, and authentic way.
Validation and mindfulness are primary tools we use to support our emotional wellbeing. They are the doors that help us recognize when we are suffering, allowing us to identify what we need to do in order to soothe and support ourselves.
What are validation and mindfulness?
Validation is an integral component to our wellbeing. Validation is the recognition and affirmation that our feelings are valid. Depression, anxiety, grief, irritability, anger, numbness, are not only normal, but completely valid in various situations. It is not until we validate our feelings that we are able to challenge them. Challenge without validation will only lead to negative self-talk, lack of motivation, and a decrease in self-compassion: “I shouldn’t be feeling this. I just need to get over it.” And yet, you’re not getting over it.
Mindfulness is the act of simply being present. Mindfulness allows us to identity whether we are happy, sad, anxious, or hurting. It makes us aware of our thoughts, “I am not enough,” or “I’m really proud of myself!” Mindfulness allows us to feel that tightness in our chest, or the lifting heaviness after taking deep breaths.
These two components together build our inner strength necessary for challenging our behaviors and thoughts. These two components allow us to make lasting change.
How many times have we all implemented these tools, only to find ourselves asking, “Now what?” What do we do to support ourselves once we become aware? What is the action step to feel better?
Gratitude is a widely practiced skill that helps us regulate our emotions. Research has repeatedly indicated that gratitude greatly improves our emotional wellbeing. By practicing gratitude, we are able to shine light on that which lifts us up and empowers us, without minimizing our hurts or our struggles. A key component to gratitude, however, is finding the type of practice that works for you.
Some people start or end their day with a gratitude list. Others practice gratitude in the face of unwanted feelings. For example, Remy, my French Bulldog, snores very loudly! There have been several nights that I become aware of the rising frustration (mindfulness), and even though I want to yell out in frustration to get him to stop snoring (validation), I instead say, “I am grateful, Remy, that you’re sleeping and breathing.”
Building a Daily Gratitude Practice
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, gratitude is one of the many practices that can support us during this time. All of us are feeling a range of emotions: grief, anger, sadness, anxiety, uncertainty. As we face this time together, I will be providing various practices we can use to support ourselves during this time.
The focus this week is on gratitude and how you can integrate it into your daily routine – a routine that presently is being upended and rewritten with every passing moment. Every day this week, I will provide you with another way to practice gratitude mindfully and intentionally. By the end of this week, my hope is that you will have practiced several gratitude practices, and have found yourself one step closer to finding a way to integrate it into your life in an effective and mindful manner.
Until tomorrow, please stay safe and healthy! I am thinking of you all.