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This Idea Changed My Life

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Now that I’ve acknowledged that, let’s move forward. I’ve had this blog post in my brain for months and was waiting for the right time to assemble the words into a post.

We all go through…a lot. Recently, my home of NYC has seen tremors from an earthquake, faced the threat of a hurricane, 9/11 anniversary terror threats, and (of course) more. Not to mention, personally, some of my family and friends are experiencing difficult, painful, life events. I am sure that some of your friends and family are too. Maybe you know someone who is currently in a lot of physical or emotional pain. It’s possible that even you are, while reading this right now.

Years ago, in my training to become a certified rape crisis counselor in NYC hospital emergency rooms, I learned something that changed my life. It seems almost simple to me now, but at the time, I had never before even considered it. Here it is:

No one person’s pain is any larger or smaller than anyone else’s. You cannot compare your pain to someone else’s. If someone hurts, they hurt. It is not your job to tell them how much they should hurt, or for how long. 

In counseling we were taught this so that we would never compare. To tell a scared, confused, recently assaulted patient something along the lines of, “Oh yea? Well, you should have seen my case last week. She was in much worse shape than you are” to make them “feel better” is really one of the worst things anyone can do. That might seem completely obvious, but you’d be surprised how very common it is to have that reaction, especially if you feel like you can relate to what someone is going through. We were taught not to minimize anyone else’s experience or try to make them see that other people have gone through “worse.” That information isn’t always true, first of all, because you don’t always know someone’s complete history. Something you might find trivial because of your life experience might seem like the literal “end of the world” to someone else. Secondly, we all experience and process things differently. I can’t measure or predict how badly you might feel when you believe your world is falling apart. I can, however, sympathize.

This idea really changed my life. I stopped my very human reaction to convince someone they would be ok, or that things aren’t nearly as bad as they feel they are. I stopped telling stories about how things could be much worse. I’m not always perfect in this, but I think it has strengthened a lot of my relationships and it certainly was a vital thing to remember in the ER in the middle of the night.

Personally, I find the level of tolerance my family and friends have for pain and emergencies to be remarkably high. But that is just my opinion. I feel like I know a lot of strong individuals, whether they realize it or not. You might feel this way about the people in your life, or not. We’ve all thought once or twice that someone needed to “buck up” or “pull it together.” That’s ok, too. It’s so easy to want everyone to see that things will eventually be ok, when you really believe they will. Everybody hurts, right? Right. Just sometimes, in very different ways.

Thoughts? Leave ’em below.

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27 responses »

  1. This is a very valuable insight. May I share a similar eye-opening experience? When I was a young girl, we heard a presentation by a Holocaust survivor, whom I had the privilege of speaking with afterward. I told him hearing his story made my problems look small. And he said, “We are all fighting our own battles, and they are all important.” When this Holocaust survivor validated my seemingly trifling concerns (compared with his), I melted in humility and gratitude, and was able to see the view that you see, too. It has also helped me to have compassion for others who are complaining ~ I hear that they are in pain and asking for sympathy, and sometimes that’s what we need. Not advice or erasure. It’s great to be reminded of this on a regular basis. Thanks for this great post!

    Reply
    • MT- What a wonderful story. I also loved that you had a chance to learn that lesson so young. I am sure it’s one of the many things that has made you into the wonderful person you are today!

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  2. Thank you ! I needed to read this today. Love love love.

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  3. I like this Darlene. My experiences both personal and assisting others is first and foremost people want and need to be validated for how they are feeling. They want to know it is okay to be feeling like they are. Also what you shared about how a situation can affect 2 different people according to their life experience. Somebody who was brought up in a loving supportive household may be able to deal and process a situation much easier than someone who was brought up in an abusive unvalidating household. We just don’t know. The last thing I want to hear when I am in a white hot mess of a meltdown over something is some well meaning person compare my situation to someone elses and minimize it. It has happened. It pissed me off. Great observation and I totally understand not writing for a while. Its all about being inspired and having the time:)

    Reply
    • Kristianna, the wonderful thing about you is that you got pissed off, but I bet you “understood” exactly where that person was coming from, all at once. I sometimes feel like when you’re in a state of healing, you can see where others need to heal as well. So glad you’re here, and commenting on my blog! (and forgiving my few posts!)

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  4. Beaner,
    I read your “I’m really Scared” post just before this one, and I love that they lie back to back. Being brave is not only about JUST what is – bravery. It’s also about humility. Sometimes I find that I need to remind myself of this: “No one person’s pain is any larger or smaller than anyone else’s. You cannot compare your pain to someone else’s…..” because when someone is hurting, in need of validation, etc. it brings up personal feelings for me; unresolved or still live emotions that I have learned, over years, to put away. Being able to grant someone the grace of your own humility and sympathy, in the face of resurrecting your own fear requires bravery – lot’s of bravery. And I applaud you, not only for sharing these two posts, but for giving so many women and people in crisis the gift of your grace. I had hoped to do something similar and share my own experience, but found it too painful to relive and relive. However, reading this post makes me think that maybe it is time…Everyone has something to share, and can maybe, help make a life better…

    Thank you, thank you.
    Xo
    Lauren

    Reply
    • Oh Ralphie, this was such a beautiful response. I don’t have the right words to express how much it fills my heart. Keep trusting that you ARE helping people, even without directly sharing your experience, just by living a strong and happy life. So many need that example and you’re proof of it! Love to you!

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  5. This writing reminds me to listen to someone and just be there for them and sit with them without offering ADVICE. More often than not, we humans just need to be heard and know someone cares. The healing answers will come as we are ready for them.

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    • So true Jhon-Jhon! I think it was especially important to teach us as specialized counselors, because so many people became counselors after going through a similar trauma. They wanted to let others know they could relate by sharing their own story, but at 3am in a harshly-lit exam room, it was much more important just to lend a shoulder. After that, we gave the advice on next steps with their families, etc, everything in it’s right time. Thank you for your wisdom! xo

      Reply
  6. Really enjoyed and missed your Blogs. Glad to see you are at it again. Even though we all may know the correct thing to say and do, we all need a refresher course. I have a habit of doing just what you said and have to remind myself that we all feel pain differently. Thank you again.
    Love you, Mom Gore

    Reply
  7. This touched me deeply. Something I question on a daily basis. “Am I listening with a compassionate ear? Am I listening with love? Am I offering a strong shoulder?” As a mother, my first reaction is to “fix” the problem. I never want my children to hurt. I want to take away their pain at any cost. Sometimes I forget that they may just need comfort to get through their pain. My big question: What are some good words to say? I feel frustrated most times because I want an encouraging word or something I can say to let them know how much I love them and care about what they are going through. I want them to want to share their pain with me because it is “comfortable” to do so.
    Thank you for doing these. I always learn so much about myself and others.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much. To answer your question to the best of my ability, I think you are already saying the right things, right here in this blog. To say you love them, and you’re willing to listen anytime day or night, seems like exactly the right thing to me.

      Sometimes kids don’t actually want to “worry” their own parents, so as we get older, we try to “protect” them more and more. I think as long as they know you’re there for them (and they do) – just that knowledge alone brings them a lot of comfort. I don’t always run to my parents when I need a shoulder to cry on, but I know that I could, and that means everything to me. Hope that helps. Love you!

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  8. Thanks for this. It rings true for me to watch myself. I’ve caught myself a million times trying to relate with people’s problems by connecting them with my own. In my head I’m finding a way to empathize with the person and show I understand but I know it must seem to them like I’m making it about me. I don’t know how that came to be my fallback for connecting with someone but I’m having a hell of a time stopping it. Not that I’m trying to tell them how to feel or anything. Wait, I’m doing it right now aren’t I? Damnit!

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    • Damnit Knight! 😉 Seriously though, I think there is a difference between sharing a similar experience to let someone know they are not alone, and sharing it just to let them know that things could be worse.

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  9. Couldn’t have summed it up any better. For me it goes along the lines of god doesn’t give you more than u can handle. I have always lived with the thought that no matter how bad it is for me someone will always have it worse and someone will always have it better. It seems like ao many are competing whose life is worse instead of being there to support someone when bad things go on. You did a great job with expressing your thoughts!

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    • Gendron- I understand what you mean about the “competition” aspect of it all as well. That’s another easy trap, and I’ve fallen into it myself! I’m going to try celebrating what IS good and wonderful, rather than comparing what isn’t. Thank you for sharing here!

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  10. You are my guru.

    It’s hard to actually be an active listener. So many distractions and worries and self-absorbed trivialities can clog our ears, but when we do actually start listening we realize what it feels like to be heard.

    I hear you.

    I know you are listening.

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  11. In very different ways! Um when did you become so wise?? Your post touched me in a few ways. I feel like whenever I come back to NY everyone seems so together and stable and happy. I am constantly comparing my experiences and successes, or lack thereof, to those around me instead of recognizing that the saying ‘to each their own’ is true! To each their own journey. To each their own triumphs. To each their own struggles. And to each their own way of dealing with all of the above. ALSO to each their own way of communicating cause Im not quite sure that made sense!
    I luh you!

    Reply
    • Nat- it definitely made sense! “To each their own” is an amazing way to consider it. I’ve been thinking a lot about “success” and “happiness” and what I’m starting to believe is that if I re-define my idea of success, the happiness part is much easier. Someone once gave me a card that said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” As long as we follow that, we’re extremely successful! Luh you, and thank you for sharing here! xo

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  12. I’ve been beating myself up about how I’ve been handling the recent passing of a friend…or rather NOT handling it, really. I keep telling myself, “Well at least it wasn’t a parent or sibling or child or husband” and wondering why I can’t just move on. Also been feeling like my friends expect me to just be over it for the same reasons…or because they don’t know what to say or do so they just ignore it.

    I think sometimes the only way OUT of pain is to go directly THROUGH it. Gotta let it get on you and seep in for a hot minute. I’m not going to beat myself up about this anymore and I’m not going to let others’ expectations – or their discomfort in how to handle me – interfere with my grieving process. It’s MY process and I need to experience it and it’s that simple.

    So thank you for this blog today. Perfect timing. ♥

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  13. I am very sorry to hear about the passing of your friend, Darci. I also agree with you about pain, if we don’t experience it, how can we move on from it? I truly hope you find the peace you need in perfect timing for you, and thank YOU for reading this and sharing here.

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  14. I find your thoughts on this really comforting, Dar. Sometimes when we’re on the ledge all we need is a silent person willing to hold our hand. That willingness speaks volumes when nothing else makes sense!

    Thank you for sharing these wise, heartfelt thoughts.

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  15. Hi Sweetheart!
    Just this morning I was talking to someone who was just weeping and crying in pain and I knew that no matter what I said it wouldn’t help with their grief and suffering, so I told them that I loved them and that I am here for them and my exact words were that everything will be ok in time.
    I believe the best kind of advice you can give someone is no advice. Just BE.
    I always love reading your blog. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
    Mom xo

    Reply

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