Most of my patients are in a great deal of emotional pain. They struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other psychiatric difficulties. Above and beyond their challenges, my patients face stigma and shame for having a mental illness, or for seeing a psychiatrist. But I have come to see that many of my patients also judge their own pain, often more harshly than the judgment they face from others.
“Seriously this shouldn’t even be that big of a deal. People have much worse problems than this.”
“This is such a ‘first world’ problem. I shouldn’t even be bothered with it.”
“I should be over this by now.”
“There are children starving in third world countries, I need to get some perspective.”
I hear statements like these on an hourly basis. To me, in these words, I hear value judgments. Yes, I have pain, but I have pain because I am weak, or because I can’t see the bigger picture. My problems are not real. I don’t deserve help or compassion; I deserve to suffer alone.
For me, my red flag is the word “should.” When I hear myself saying, “This shouldn’t bother me,” or “I should be a better mom, ” or “I should be thinner,” I feel humiliated or compared. Humiliation doesn’t ease pain, nor does it motivate me to make positive changes in my life. It only serves to make me feel even more badly about myself.
To my patients, to all of us, I say, the pain is real to the person who is feeling it.
What if, instead of devaluing our pain, we treated ourselves with kindness and compassion? What if we offered ourselves words of comfort, rather than words of shame? What if approaching our suffering with gentle hands allowed us to better hold and understand our pain?
What if our ability to extend kindness to ourselves in times of suffering, allowed us to extend kindness to others in times of suffering as well?
Yes, perspective on our problems is important. But it is not as if one person’s pain has to be more important or worthy than that of another individual. Stepping back and feeling the pain and tragedy that exists all over our world acknowledges our interconnectedness. Our hearts are infinite. There is room for all of us, all of the love, all of the suffering. Our hearts can stretch to accommodate all of it, if we allow them to.
It can be difficult to live in the world of all perspective, all the time. Many of us feel the pulse of our lives deeply, and I am not sure I would want it any other way. When we do find perspective, we find the ability to step back and see that, at times life is harder, at times life is easier, for all of us. Perspective doesn’t diminish our pain, but perhaps allows us to manage and navigate through all of our experiences with more grace.
So today, and in the week ahead, I invite you to join me in identifying when we are judging our pain, or the pain of others. Where in your life do the “shoulds” run rampant? Is there a way to approach your pain with more compassion?
With gratitude, Monisha