When thinking about writing a blog about mental health, it just felt comical. It feels like there is no way to narrow down what could or should be discussed at this point. When I decided I wanted to be a therapist, I knew I would be holding space for people through their darkest of times. I never anticipated walking alongside a series of collective traumas that was actually affecting every single one of my clients as well as myself. I’d like to say I have learned so much from this first half of 2020, but unfortunately or fortunately (I haven’t decided yet). I am left with more questions than I ever thought possible. However, with questions come lots of opportunities for learning. Here is just a small taste of what I have learned.
Comparative suffering is not helpful. Empathy, compassion and social awareness are helpful. Comparative suffering broken down simply is the idea that we get points for how hard our stuff is. If I have less points than others then I can’t be sad, I shouldn’t take care of myself because others deserve it more. Brene Brown said it best, as she always does, “Empathy is not finite.” You are not going to run out of empathy by spending it on yourself. It is in fact the opposite. By extending empathy and compassion towards yourself, you actually now have more to give to others. Think of it as a glass of water. If I have a full cup and pour a little out to everyone around me eventually I am going to run out unless I find a place to refill.
Now this is where real talk comes in. I mentioned social awareness which is equally as important as empathy. When filling your cup, be aware of who you are asking for water. Comparative suffering tries to dismiss your feelings. This is not helpful and quite frankly does not work. Social awareness tells you to process your feelings with others who have water to give. Your wedding being cancelled due to COVID-19 deserves to be grieved but, we do not try to hand our grief to someone who has lost a loved one from the same illness. Your children driving you crazy with negative behaviors is valid and so hard, but you aren’t going to lean heavily on a friend who wants more than anything to have a child. Your life may have seen struggle, but you aren’t going to complain about it to someone who has never been given the opportunities your circumstances have allowed you to receive.
The more I do this work the more I believe in the both/and and not the either/or. I can believe that this is hard AND others are dealing with harder. I can feel overwhelmed and confused by information AND acknowledge it’s privilege that allows me to take a break. Kristin Neff writes and speaks about self compassion in a way I’ve conceptualized as 1+2=3.
1 What I’m going through right now is really hard
+ 2 In life hard things happen
= 3 I need to take a moment to be kind to myself
In order to keep moving forward during hard times it is important that we get to this place of self compassion which can then lead to more compassion for others. By allowing space for our own hurt and fear, connecting with those that can support us through it and caring for ourselves we are then able to engage with others from a more loving and compassionate place. Dr. Martin Luther King’s words continually resonate with me, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”. When we start from within we can shine in a better, more authentic way, which only makes us brighter to love those around us.