Why it's important to acknowledge that things are tough.
I was in session with a client — both of us peering at each other through the screens of our respective laptops, her face occasionally pixelating and then reforming in a manner I’m growing accustomed to — when I found myself, once again, in the position of reassuring someone that yes, their life is pretty shitty right now.
As a therapist, I’m not completely unfamiliar with this territory. It’s exceptionally common for clients to come to therapy preemptively minimizing their own struggles. It’s not so bad, they might say. Other people have it worse. I’m making a big deal out of nothing. And before we can do the work of exploring the emotions, processing the experiences, expressing the feelings, the client and I must first do the work of legitimizing the problems they’ve come in to talk about.
These days, however, I’m encountering this terrain both inside and outside of my therapy sessions. In WhatsApp chats with friends (and other WhatsApp chats with other friends, and more group chats with more friends) I’m hearing from the people I care about that their days have become increasingly harder to bear under COVID conditions — but it’ll be okay, really. Don’t worry about me. The Coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it, for the foreseeable future, yet nobody seems to feel they’ve earned the right to be upset about it.
Today, my client was talking to me about her struggles under quarantine. “I know it’s first-world problems,” she said. “But I really miss intimacy. I miss my friends.” In her case, someone in her family had actually told her that she was being too sensitive. “People out there are dying,” her relative told her. And she internalized that message and parroted it to me: My problems aren’t big enough to matter.
Even if no one is actively telling us that our challenges aren’t challenging enough, we all struggle to recognize that our pain is real. That our pain is valid. Right now, the entire world is going through an intensely challenging time. There is a global pandemic, and every single person’s life has been disrupted. Sure, not every person is struggling emotionally. I have clients who are loving their new lives, friends who dread the day they have to go back to work in the office. But for the people who are struggling, it’s crucial that they acknowledge that their struggles are real.
Telling yourself your pain isn’t valid doesn’t make the pain go away. It just makes you feel guilty for feeling the pain in the first place. So on top of grief, on top of anger, on top of frustrations over things big and small, you now have guilt, too.
It makes sense that we do this, of course. There are so many good reasons why we minimize our problems, why we compare our pain away. We don’t want to worry our loved ones, we don’t want to worry ourselves; we want to think we’re stronger than a change in our routine, that we’re above the trivialities of grocery store schedules. It’s certainly easier to tell ourselves that we’re fine than to deal with the emotional shit lurking underneath the surface — and it works, for a short while. But it also hurts us. Because pain doesn’t go away just because we want it to.
“Telling yourself your pain isn’t valid doesn’t make the pain go away. It just makes you feel guilty for feeling the pain in the first place.”
I want my friends to know that the day they had — where they saw themselves yelling at their kids, becoming the parent they swore they’d never be — that’s devastating. And they deserve the recognition that their pain is real. My friends who are trying to provide their kids with structure, with normalcy, while every day fighting crippling anxiety before even getting out of bed in the morning — your pain is fucking real.
And my clients. To my beautiful, wonderful clients: I see your pain and it is real. This pandemic has changed your life in so many ways. It has locked you inside with your abusive relatives. It has taken away your income. It has robbed you of the independence you fought so hard to achieve. It has chipped away at every coping skill you’ve learned to use in your never-ending battle to maintain your mental health. It has separated you from the only people who show you love. So yes. Your pain is real.
This is not about whining. It isn’t about self-pity. This is about recognizing the emotions that are truly there instead of “no-big-deal”ing them away. It’s about allowing yourself the compassion to admit your own pain rather than judging yourself for experiencing pain at all. No one else’s problems negate your own. There is always someone who will have it worse — and that person is probably telling themselves they shouldn’t complain, also. But until we accept the pain we’re feeling, we can’t do anything to make it better.
So yes, your life does suck right now. It might not suck all the time, or even most of the time. Hopefully, it will stop sucking in this way soon. But please, do yourself the kindness of admitting that it sucks.