As a youngster, I despised peas. Peas were the enemy. But for some reason, my parents insisted I eat them. I accomplished this horrific task by attempting to swallow them whole as quickly as possible so as to hardly taste the awful things going down. I also tended to drench them in butter and salt, which basically counterbalanced any nutritional value they once had, thus making the whole exercise fairly pointless. I’m not sure if it was my parents or someone else who then pointed out that there are kids starving in China, so I should be grateful I have food on my plate at all. We’ve all heard this line of reasoning in one form or another. The problem was that I still hated peas. Now, on top of being forced to eat peas, I was also horrified that there were kids starving in China. I wondered why I was such a bad person to hate peas when those kids in China would be grateful to have them. Ah, sweet, sweet guilt!
Even though most of us know by now the ridiculousness of that argument, the truth is we still do the same kinds of comparisons every day in hopes that we’ll suddenly feel better and grateful for what we have because someone else is supposedly worse off. Lately, I’ve been noticing a somewhat disturbing tendency in my friends and clients to dismiss their feelings by comparing themselves to those “less fortunate.” For instance, a client might spend five minutes pouring her heart out to me about how she just doesn’t feel passionate about her job anymore and is actually quite miserable. Then, suddenly, she goes on to exclaim in an unconvincingly chipper voice, “Well, at least I have a job! I know so many people who don’t have work.” While it’s true that many people don’t have work and that situation can be very difficult, this fact has absolutely nothing to do with my client feeling miserable in her current situation. So why do we do this? Do we actually feel better by comparing ourselves to people we think might be more miserable than us? In the long run, I don’t think so. I think we actually feel worse.
I believe the reason we feel worse is because all we succeed in doing is adding guilt to our misery, and guilt + misery only equals more misery. The fact that we are feeling miserable doesn’t change when we compare ourselves to others, but now we also think we shouldn’t feel miserable because, after all, someone else would clearly feel grateful (or so we think) to be in our situation. Sure, for a short time, we might feel better as we realize how lucky we are in so many ways. That’s fantastic! Gratitude is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the problem is that after only a few hours or even a few minutes we will revert back to our original feelings, only now we are also disgusted with ourselves for not being able to stop those feelings. I remember many times in my depressed states hating myself because I would look around the world and see the absolutely horrific atrocities happening to billions of people, and then I would look at my cushy little life and feel that I simply had no right to be depressed. I ended up dismissing my experience as invalid and had added yet another reason to hate myself. You can imagine how well that worked out!
So the next time you are tempted to perk yourself up by comparing yourself to some poor, suffering soul, remember that being grateful for what you have has nothing to do with what other people lack, and your feelings are valid regardless of how your situation compares to another’s. For me, this realization was one small step toward loving and accepting myself just the way I am, pea-hater and all.
Aloha & blessings,