It could be worse.

I’m sitting on a bench. Alone. Outside. It’s past dusk. Cold. No jacket or sweater. Waiting for the tow truck to come that promises to break me into my car. I can see the keys on the front seat. They taunt me.

As I shiver I think, “What am I complaining about? It’s not raining (for once). The girls are old enough to be home by themselves. I have an iPhone that enables me to text, manage email, even read a book. Buck up, Ronna. It could be worse.”

It. Could. Be. Worse.

Four simple words that get us into a heap o’ trouble.

I have conversations with people all the time. Sometimes really hard conversations. They’ve known loss or grief or harm. They’re awash in frustration or confusion or disappointment. They are lonely or miserable or sick. And I hear dialogue that eerily resembles my own: “It could be worse.” They then proceed to tell me of someone else whose story is definitely worse. As they talk, they manage to apply a gossamer-thin veneer of shame to their own experiences and feelings. It’s sheen plays tricks with them. Before they know it they talk themselves out of whatever they originally felt. Raw emotion gives way to obligatory compassion. You might recognize it. It sounds something like this:

“I shouldn’t complain. Compared to so-and-so, I don’t have it all that bad. I need to keep things in perspective. After all…”

…it could be worse.”

Though I can appreciate the compassion and perspective seemingly rife in this kind of reasoning, this comparing, this perspective-creating, it drives me crazy! And here’s why: when we tell ourselves “it could be worse” we discount the validity of our own story. We dissociate from our own circumstances, even our own emotions and tell ourselves to get it together. In effect, we tell ourselves that what we feel doesn’t matter, isn’t worthy of even being spoken about, and probably should just skulk back under the rock from which it came.

“Yes, my marriage is really hard. I’m pretty miserable almost all of the time, but I shouldn’t complain. At least I don’t have it as bad as _______________. I’m pretty sure her husband is having an affair. I should be grateful for what I have. It could be worse.”

“Yes, infertility is painful. I struggle to keep my spirits up when I feel such disappointment every 28 days. But I shouldn’t complain. At least I’m not ________________. Can you imagine? Losing a child at only five years of age? It could be worse.”

“I’ll admit, it’s tough trying to make a go of being self-employed; trying to juggle finances and time and just plain fear. But I shouldn’t complain. At least I’m not working at a job I hate like _________________. She’s totally miserable every single day. At least I get to choose who I spend my time with and how I manage my own schedule. It could be worse.”

Yes, it could be worse. Isn’t that always true? But it’s not worse. And what’s more, it doesn’t matter!

It’s your damn story! Live it, feel it, and complain about it if you want to. It’s probably legitimate!

Please don’t misunderstand me. In no way am I saying that a woman whose husband is having an affair, a parent who has just lost a child, or an employee who is suffering in a 9-5 reality are not deserving of sympathy. Of course they are! In the most generous, vast, and infinite ways possible. What I am saying is that our sympathy loses at least an iota of its sincerity when it serves more profoundly as a shield from our own stuff. What I am saying is that we deserve our own sympathy, whether it could be worse, or not.

We resist this at nearly every turn – this truth-telling. And oh, how good we’ve gotten at it. We give ourselves a good talking to. We pull ourselves up from our bootstraps. We smile though our heart is breaking. In effect, we shut down the true, deep, and oft’ visceral emotion we feel.

To not feel what we feel is never good.

 

I’ll admit it: locking my keys in my car is not that big of a deal. Yes, it could be worse. But as I sat there and shivered, I realized I really wasn’t all that upset about the keys.

  • I was upset about the last couple conversations I had with my eldest – how she treated me and how I responded in return. I felt angry. A bit defensive. Disrespected.
  • I was upset about some palpably absent conversations with a friend today. I felt avoided. Unseen. Mildly hurt.
  • I was upset that it cost me $150 to get out of Target today with only two bags of who-knows-what. I felt frustrated. Tense. Miserly.
  • I was upset that when I finally got home loads of laundry and a night of housecleaning (for a real-estate agent’s showing tomorrow) awaited. I felt tired. Spent. Put-out.

The longer I reflected (and believe me, I had time), the more I realized that I had all kinds of emotions swirling around. Emotions that needed to be acknowledged (vs. ignored), parsed out (vs. shoved down), actually felt (vs. repressed) and legitimized (vs. discounted). And the longer I had to see my feelings for what they really were, the more I was able to let them out, let them be, let them go.

I’m not advocating pity-parties (though sometimes even those have their place). What I am advocating is to allow the feelings we actually have to actually be felt. They deserve (and eventually demand) to be expressed. Tell the truth. No matter what. Even if things could be worse.

And when things are worse? All the more reason to grieve, wail, rage, or scream. In fact, I’ll join you! In sympathy, for sure; but also in solidarity, in real knowing, in an awareness of how legitimate every single thing you feel is.

 

The tow truck came. He broke into my car. I retrieved my keys, turned the ignition, and headed back home.

And all the while I felt.

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    { 22 comments… read them below or add one }

    leeanna June 7, 2011 at

    Great post! I find that it always happens to me as well, it’s one of those “the last straw that broke the camels” back situations but it’s almost a law that if u think “it could be worse” it will be so i avoid thinking that and try to make the most out of the situation, especially when coming to a breaking point.
    leeanna recently posted..Conference Planning

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    Ronna Detrick June 7, 2011 at

    It’s an easy and almost-natural thing that happens Leeana – this “trying to make the most of things.” And while it’s often helpful, it also – often – keeps us from really acknowledging how we feel; from really telling the truth.

    Reply

    Lindsey June 7, 2011 at

    Ronna,
    This is so, so beautiful, and so true. I do this ALL the time: try to convince myself not to be so ungrateful, so sad, so whatever-the-heck-I-am, because after all, I have it SO GOOD. And you are right that while perspective is valuable, doing that does discount my own feelings and story in some measure. Thanks so much for pointing this out … really, really important. xox

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick June 7, 2011 at

    I do it all the time, as well, Lindsey (though less than I used to). But as I’ve said a zillion times before, I wonder what would happen if we allowed for ambivalence, for multiple realities at once: feeling sad and grateful, or angry and balanced. Letting everything that we feel have validity and voice. An ongoing journey, for sure. ‘Grateful you’re on it with me…

    Reply

    Renae C June 7, 2011 at

    Wow. Just wow.

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick June 7, 2011 at

    Thanks, Renae.

    Reply

    EJ Hunter June 7, 2011 at

    I’m thankful that in this post you didn’t go for that bit of schadenfreude that seemed to be lurking around the corner… the ‘I am going to go out of my way to derive pleasure that I’m not this other person’. Very well handled, great post!

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick June 7, 2011 at

    ‘Grateful.

    Reply

    Linda Eaves June 8, 2011 at

    Ronna – So long were we trained to be the nice girl. (At least that was my experience) Always smile, project a pleasant personality at all times. That would get you liked and loved and was a badge of pride. All other feelings were illegal and to be hidden for something more presentable and acceptable. Thanks for sharing your experience and showing us it’s OK to bring them out of the closet.
    Linda Eaves recently posted..Announcing My First E-Booklet – Good Intuition Good Business

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    Ronna Detrick June 8, 2011 at

    Enough with the “nice girl” learnings. I’m hardly opposed to nice-ness, but yes, it’s time for us to feel what we feel – and then say it! Thanks, Linda.

    Reply

    Rachelle June 8, 2011 at

    Ronna,

    This is so So important. In the face of global suffering we can easily start denying our own story. The volume of Other Stories can overwhelm us.

    Jen Lemen once said to me, “Everyone’s suffering is their own.” Your suffering, on whatever scale, is real to you and needs to be acknowledged. Naming your story, Noticing your story…this is not synonymous with “wallowing.” :-)

    Thank you for the good word.
    Rachelle recently posted..Relig-ish- A Withmate for the Journey

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    Ronna Detrick June 8, 2011 at

    Yes. Yes. Yes, Rachelle. And thank you!

    Reply

    Angie June 8, 2011 at

    Yes, it could be worse, but this still sucks. It is what it is. Acknowledge it, own it, and like you say, recognize what is feeding it. If necessary, wallow in self-pity for a bit. It’s okay to do that….for a bit. It is a way of honoring the physiological stress response…..fighting or fleeing, if you will…..rather than squashing it deep inside our muscles and brain to spill over into the rest of our lives.

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick June 8, 2011 at

    You’re on it, Angie. And I know you know…The temptation is large to downplay and discount, isn’t it? And it’s our story!!! Worth telling, hearing, and living, for sure!

    Reply

    jane June 8, 2011 at

    we are taught this as a coping mechanism right? i never saw it as anything other than noble until i worked with children with profound disabilities – and it seemed to be the only purpose people without disabilities could see for those kids – to be the holders of the worst possible outcome, the thing that all other bad things in life could be measured against… and the more i came to know and appreciate those kids the more angry this made me… they were so much more than the epitomy of pity,
    they were amazing
    and now i have another reason to dismiss this as a coping mechanism… thank you Ronna (even though when the feelings are big i might sometimes curse a little under my breath coz it is nice to have something to do to ease the avalanche)
    jane recently posted..my manifesto

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    Ronna Detrick June 8, 2011 at

    Perfect example, Jane – the kids. And heartbreaking. I’m so grateful on your behalf that you have this context; that you can take this – your story – and craft it even more powerfully into the one you want to be telling and living.

    And go ahead and curse under your breath (or out loud). ‘Totally understandable, allowed, and legitimate!

    Reply

    Tina June 9, 2011 at

    Outstanding!!
    I have read this and let it soak in, really penetrate.
    We’ve all heard that our feelings need to be “examined”, “felt”, “embraced”. This time, the way you presented it, I got it. It not scary, it’s good!! Thank you from the bottom of my healing heart!

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick June 9, 2011 at

    Mmmm, Tina; I’m so glad you’re here…that what I’ve said is healing…and that you’ve chosen to say so. Generous and kind of you. Healing to me. Thank you.

    Reply

    Sera June 19, 2011 at

    I recently had a conversation with a friend about a similar topic and a fear arose within me…

    The fear of being labeled… selfish. I was labeled this once when dealing with my emotions…. by my Mother.

    I feel it like it was yesterday! I knew in my heart of hearts she was wrong, but I still felt the hurt. The ‘threat’. The association. Dealing with feelings, and, god forbid, putting them on others may be seen as selfish. I had been warned and have never forgotten.

    I hear your words deeply. The awareness of all these things: knowing, yes, it could be worse, knowing it doesn’t matter that it could be worse because it is what it is!, knowing the frustration is probably coming from a deeper place, and knowing it will all shift again soon… are all relevant, and worth exploring.

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick June 20, 2011 at

    It’s such a natural response within us – or layered on us – this sublimating our own pain, our own desire in comparison with another’s. It’s got to stop! And I only say this because I know it so, so well! Living and learning all the time, for sure.

    Reply

    Nadine July 18, 2011 at

    Wonderful post, thank you, Ronna.

    This is such a hard lesson to learn. As young girls we are brainwashed into believing:

    Self-love = Selfish
    &
    Selfish = Bad.

    Why is it that it is not until we have grinned and borne more than a mind, body or soul can possibly bear, that we might finally come to the realisation that, sometimes, it’s not only okay for it to be “all about me”, it’s absolutely imperative for our survival?

    Reply

    Ronna Detrick July 18, 2011 at

    It’s a life-long lesson, Nadine, for sure; one that we cycle through more and more quickly (hopefully) the older – and wiser – we get. It takes a long time to break down old messages and allow new ones to be true. Or, maybe better stated: it takes a long time to actually hear the oldest, deepest messages – the truest ones.

    So grateful for your presence – your reading – your kind words. Thank you.

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