Stop Distress Over Distress: Self-Respect in a World of Suffering

by | Nov 1, 2017 | 2 Those Who Mourn

No scale exists to measure your distress against the distress of others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).
In my daily round as a therapist, I often check with people about their coping strategies and skills. Do you exercise? Sleep regularly? And how do you put your problems in perspective?
One of the most common answers to that last question appears in statements like these:
“When I consider how much worse people have it in Syria, I can’t complain about my boss’s unreasonable demands.”
“Sure this knee injury knocked me out for the season. But when I think about the girl with brain cancer, I don’t feel bad about my problem.”
“I’ve got a loving wife, great kids, a good job, and decent health. What right have I to feel depressed when so many people in the world are starving to death?”
In other words, when I put my suffering on a scale with that of someone else, the scale tips toward the other. Thank God it doesn’t tip toward me.
Up to a point, this helps. It can jolt into realizing that we have such tunnel vision for our own problems that we make mountains out of molehills. It can awaken us to the blessings we ignore when fixated on our problems.
But this coping strategy often elbows us onto a slippery slope, so I seldom endorse it outright. For when we use it to go to the opposite extreme and shame ourselves over our distress, it only makes stress worse. Too often the person who copes this way starts a process I call D2. D=distress. So D2=distress X distress.
D2 is inevitable when we compare our suffering to the suffering of others because it undermines self-respect. Since someone suffers more than me, I forfeit my right to feel anything at all.
Yet, I cannot not feel. If I don’t allow myself to feel distress over stressful situations, losses, or harsh blows, I cut myself off from myself. How can I know who I am, what I find important, or what to say to someone who cares if I don’t allow myself to feel my feelings?
Ashamed of my own feelings, I get anxious over my anxiety and depressed over my depression. That’s D2.  Distress over distress amplifies exponentially.  It is the most devastating attitudinal factor in mental illness.  Paradoxically, feeling better requires acceptance of feeling bad, not wallowing in it, but respecting the feelings and the self who feels.  That breaks the spiral of panic or despair. It extracts the square root of D2.
If this sounds like selfish indulgence, think again. Accepting painful feelings is crucial for compassion. For when D2 shames me over my feelings, I easily slip into resentment of others who suffer, possibly blaming them for their plight.  I may compare not only my suffering but their suffering with those who suffer even more, and someone always suffers more.  Denied the right to comfort, I deny it to others.
I never met anyone who embarked on a mission of compassionate service because they realized they had no right to suffer and wanted to bring comfort to those who do. If anyone did that, I don’t think they would be very effective.  They would have no empathy.
In Mother Teresa’s private writings, she expressed much anguish, and I do not recall that she ever dismissed her feelings because she saw so many people suffer more grievously in the streets of Calcutta.[1]
The scale to compare your suffering with that of others does not exist. Whatever you feel, your feelings are important because they are yours, and you are a child of God. To live the life of love for which God made you and to which God called you, accept and respect your feelings, especially the painful ones.
[1] Brian Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.  (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
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