When I hear a theme appear in my group calls, workshops, and with my clients, I know we’re in the realm of the archetypal collective consciousness and it’s time to write about it here. Such has been the case these last few weeks around the idea of comparative suffering and the phrase “first world problems.”
Now let me be clear at the outset that the term “first world problems” originally meant minor problems that those with less pressing concerns frequently complain about. This could be anything from slow WiFi to forgetting your password to an online account, from an online delivery arriving later than expected to a chipped nail. Obviously, these are not real problems. They may be momentarily annoying or inconvenient but with a slight shift in perspective they would change from irritation to a non-issue.
What’s the perspective shift that ameliorates true first-world problems? The answer is in the question: perspective. When we remember that just a few years ago there was no such thing as Amazon 2-day delivery and in recent memory we had to access the internet through dialup (many of you don’t realize that ;)), irritation dissolves and re-emerges as gratitude.
However, the term “first world problems” is now frequently misused to try diminish real feelings around situations that are inherently painful, disappointing, frustrating or heartbreaking. When a child is crying – screaming even – because their Winnie-the-Pooh balloon flew away, a well-meaning parent who is having trouble tolerating the child’s big feelings might say something like, “It’s just a balloon. There are children who don’t have any toys at all.” Translation: Get over it. For the child whose entire world in that moment is the balloon, the child for whom that balloon represents their joy, their freedom, their connection to Pooh bear and the magic of the Hundred Acre Woods, the loss of the balloon is truly devastating, and to minimize it only leads the child to the belief that their feelings are “too much” or don’t matter.
At it happens, this is exactly what occurred at my son’s first birthday party, and the feelings of loss embedded themselves so deeply into the fabric of his psyche that it formed his first memory. He remembers feeling bereft as the balloon left his tiny hands and floated into the blue sky. He remembers looking longingly at Pooh in balloon form as he lifted further and further away. And I hope that he remembers how my husband and I comforted him (I hope we didn’t say something like, “Don’t worry! We’ll buy you another one” – although I can’t be sure of that). I hope what was translated into his young and malleable psyche is that it’s okay to cry when you lose something you love.
And as I reflect on it now, I wonder if the balloon also represented the end of his first year of life, that in some way that we can’t possibly understand with our still rudimentary understanding of psyche and the unconscious, if the grief that he expressed over the lost balloon was wrapped around the grief about sensing that he was no longer a little baby. I certainly grieved the loss of his babyhood around his first birthday, and knowing how highly sensitive he was and how much sadness he experienced around subsequent birthdays, it’s likely that he was feeling this grief as well. If we, as parents, had minimized his grief about the balloon, what message would we have been sending around grieving across the threshold of transitions?
The grief and overwhelm and anxiety that presents itself in our loved ones isn’t necessarily the full story. In fact, more often than not, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What we see is grief about a balloon; what’s underneath is grief about letting go of babyhood.
And that brings me to our current situation with this virus. I’m hearing comparative suffering every week in my work lately. I’m starting with examples from childhood because that’s often where the roots of comparative suffering began, and as we excavate the roots of our current beliefs about expressing pain and supporting others through their pain it’s always helpful to go back to the early years.
For example, a member of my 9-month course recently shared on a group call, “Guilt about the starving children in Africa was passed around the dinner table alongside the peas and carrots. Quite often when I expressed a difficult feeling, I was reminded of those children. Now when I feel sad, disappointed, frustrated, or bored I think, ‘What right do I have to feel these feelings when there are children are really suffering?'”
Suffering is suffering. Heartbreak doesn’t hurt any less because you have a lucrative job. Disappointment doesn’t leave less ache because you’re healthy.
Fast forward to our son who is now fifteen and struggling more than the rest of us in our little introverted family as he misses his life outside the home. For teenagers, this time of quarantine takes on a particular sting as everything inside of them is longing to individuate from the family unit and discover who they are in reference to people other than their parents. He misses seeing other teens. He misses learning in person from other adults. He misses the oxygen flow that happens when you leave the house and have real-life experiences. He misses everything about his life pre-virus.
As his mother, I feel his pain in my own heart, and at times my helplessness has felt unbearable. When we see our kids in pain we want to fix it, and yet this need to “fix” never feels helpful to the one in pain. Fixing can sounds like, “Think about the kids who are stuck at home right now without even a yard to run around in. Think about the kids whose parents have covid-19.” Is offering perspective and encouraging our loved ones to orient toward gratitude helpful? Yes, but it’s not helpful in the moment that someone is expressing their pain and heartbreak.
Pain only needs one thing: to be heard, to be held, to be validated. My son – or any of my loved ones who are in pain – needs me to move closer to him, to check in with him daily, to connect with him in ways that I haven’t connected previously. Once given full space to feel the depth and range of his feelings, he will naturally orient toward perspective and gratitude. But it can’t come from me. No matter what the pain is – whether it’s yours or another – in the moment of pain the only loving response is to say, in word and action, “I hear you. I’m with you. Of course you’re hurting.”
“Comparative suffering”, as Brené Brown brilliantly names it, is yet another way that we invalidate our feelings. The bottom line is that you’re always going to find someone who “has it worse” than you; there will always be someone in worse financial or physical circumstances. Does that mean unless you’re on your deathbed or homeless you don’t have a right to feel your overwhelm, disappointment, grief, heartache, frustration, or fear? Of course not.
We start where we are, and from the place of being witnessed and validating ourselves, we shift into another space. This is how we heal. This is how we fill our well of self. And from this place of fullness that arises from being seen, we naturally open up to other perspectives and shift into a mindset of generosity. When we see ourselves, we see the world. From self-compassion, we bring compassion to others. When we heal ourselves, we bring our healing into the world.