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.
Now more than ever, it is important that we connect with those around us in a safe way. One of the ways in which we do that is by practicing our own self-compassion.
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a “consciousness of others’ distress with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is, by definition, relational. Thus, self-compassion would also be relational.
According to Kristin Neff, a leading expert and researcher in self-compassion, one of the key components to practicing self-compassion is common humanity. Common humanity is the understanding that unpleasant feelings are part of the human experience, that suffering is universal. We are connected not only by the joys in our lives, but in our struggles, heartaches, and fears.
How, then, do we respond to our unwanted feelings when they arise?
Common humanity is a key component in what connects us. When we fail to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles, we increase our feelings isolation and self-pity. This leads to a hyper-focus on the self, creating a tunnel-visioned mindset, which only deepens our feelings of isolation and disconnection. Therefore, by improving our self-compassion, we enhance our ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion for others, in turn, increases our sense of connection, thereby decreasing feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety. We also become less judgmental of our feelings and behaviors.
During the pandemic, it is important to remember we are all struggling. Common humanity can link us together while we are apart. It also allows us to support those who are struggling in very different ways from us.
The pandemic is universal for all of us: we all are having a response to it. We all are having shifts in our lives because of it. Our circumstances, however, are very different. In understanding our common humanity, let us not downplay or invalidate those individuals who have a different level of suffering than we do, who’s circumstances are different from our own.
We are not in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.
For more information on self-compassion and common humanity, visit Kristin Neff’s website: www.self-compassion.org.
Yesterday, we addressed two ways in which we can practice gratitude: the first was to create a daily gratitude list; the second was to identify things we are grateful for in the moment to help reframe unwanted emotions and thoughts. Both of these practices are internal practices – gratitude practices that allow us to turn inward and reflect.
A third way we can practice gratitude is by sharing it outwardly, externally, and with others. In fact, the act of expressing and sharing gratitude engenders further gratitude: we are more likely to express it if someone has expressed it first.
During this pandemic, our local establishments have had to close their doors. I’ve been sad watching shops drop their security gates and post signs thanking us for our business, and providing hope that we would all see each other again soon. Recently, I made a purchase from one of our local businesses, Brooklyn General Store, a yarn and fabric shop. I was ecstatic that they were able to continue fulfilling online orders while they were closed so I could continue my knitting. When I received my package, I thanked the shop owner for her service to our community and for continuing to remain open virtually. The shop owner, in turn, thanked me! She stated she was grateful for those of us who are continuing to support their shop as she was continuing to pay her staff while they were home. Gratitude opens the door for more gratitude, creating a mutual symbiotic relationship. We both benefit from the other in our mutual caring for one another. Thus, we care, and we are cared for.
Several research studies have shown that expressing gratitude and giving thanks has marked improvement on our moods, relationships, and physical health. It also increases our resiliency to unwanted situations. Studies from the University of Pennsylvania compared practicing gratitude to other positive psychology interventions. The study found that those individuals who personally delivered a letter of gratitude to someone exhibited an increase in happiness scores, and the scores continued to remain elevated for a month! Simply put, if we express gratitude for and to another person, we are going to remain happier for a longer period of time.
Today, call up a friend or loved one and share your gratitude for them. Pull out a piece of paper, or print off a piece of stationary, get out your favorite pen, and write a note to deliver. If you can’t leave your house today to deliver it (social distancing comes first!), set it aside and deliver it at a later date.
I, for one, am grateful for all of you! I am grateful for the work you all continue to do during this challenging time. And I’m grateful to be a part of all of your lives.
 Seligman, M.E.P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Freepress: New York.
Link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1439190763/braipick-20