by Wendy Keller
You know that little tingle of guilt you get when you hear someone’s story and it’s “worse” than yours? How you tell yourself, “Gosh, I shouldn’t feel so bad! Look at what happened to her!”
Here’s what I think about that feeling: Forgeddaboutit.
Why? Because you can’t feel anyone else’s pain, and someone else’s pain has nothing to do with yours – at all. Not even remotely. When I was six and my hamster died (we won’t go into the fact that that’s how I learned they need food and water regularly!), for me it was the greatest grief in my life to date. I was miserably sad and felt so guilty for killing my beloved pet. I was 100% sad, you could say. But when I was 26 and my children both died (although no fault of my own), that was certainly the greatest grief in my life to date. But at six, I wouldn’t have understood. And if you haven’t lost a child, you don’t either. You can’t compare in any way except intellectually to what it might be like to live through what someone else endured – and it doesn’t serve you to do so. Even if the circumstances seem exactly the same, the inner reactions and relationships are always different.
Here’s one of the MOST important principles in getting over anything:
Realize that EVERYONE suffers their own pain at 100%.
You’re not a bad person if you still feel sorry for yourself despite hearing someone else’s tale of woe. You’re a normal person. Everyone feels sorry for themselves when bad things happen. I believe that’s because this ego-induced belief that we’ve got it so tough is a BENEFIT to our species. If our ancestors had never said to themselves, “Gee, it’s really lousy that every time it rains, we all get wet and cold” people would never have moved into caves, condos, huts, houses, tents or mansions.
Don’t believe me that we all suffer our own pain at 100%? Let me prove it to you.
(I am borrowing this story from the inspirational speeches I have given on this topic all over the US. Audiences always “get it” when I explain it this way.) Imagine you are cooking dinner. You’re loading up your plate with food to walk it to the table. You’ve got the TV on and one of those super-sad commercials starts for feeding children somewhere in Africa. They show those emaciated children, looking miserable and hungry. The voice-over tells you for just a few dollars a day…
You’re looking at the screen, thinking about how guilty you feel, maybe you should donate, when suddenly, WHAM! You stub your toe against the chair leg. Ouch! You set your plate down and hop around for a bit during the worst of the pain. Hurts like crazy! Throbbing!
OK. Quick gut check: What was more real for you after you stubbed your toe? Your pain or the pain of that starving kid in Africa?
The answer is obvious. But what does that realization mean?
It means you can’t blame yourself for feeling bad about the bad things that have happened your life. It means that if you feel sorry for someone else, even if you try to help them, that’s nice. And it may be comforting to them. But they’ll still be living their life and you’ll be living yours. You can’t quantify whose pain is bigger. But you can USE the pain to achieve something bigger. What you do after you get hurt is far more important than whether you get hurt…because most people will get dose or more of pain in their lives at some point.
Pain is a great motivator of growth.
Pain is a great motivator of growth. You can use the pain to get out of pain or discomfort, like the cavemen. You can use it to make yourself a more compassionate person. You can use it as a catalyst for your own personal growth. You can choose to continue to wallow or suffer. But because we are truly incapable of really feeling another person’s pain, the thing you cannot rationally do is tell yourself you “should” feel less of your own pain just because you think someone else is suffering “more”.
If your pain is causing you suffer, don’t waste your energy on comparing and trying to tell yourself you “should” feel something differently. Recognize that you are suffering at 100%, even if no one else understands how something like that could be painful to you, and USE your pain to get yourself into a better place. Because, just like your suffering is 100% yours, so is resolving the cause of your suffering.
Use your pain to get yourself into a better place.