Someone Else’s Pain + Struggle Do Not Negate Yours

Your problems are your problems. The fact that other people have different problems doesn't negate yours. Loss and struggle aren't a contest. No one wins the Pain Olympics. Read more here >>
A few years ago I went through an absolutely heart-shredding breakup.
I cried in many, many coffee shops, moved into a tiny apartment, and leaned on my friends a lot. They helped me move all the furniture I bought from Craigslist, listened to my late-night bawling, and baked beer/cheese/bacon cupcakes with me.
Among the various instances of public crying and omg-I-hate-dating, one stands out.

I was sitting at a friend’s kitchen table, a few months post break up, crying (again) about a guy I shouldn’t have been with anyway. It felt embarrassing to be so broken up and worn down by something like the end of a 2.5 year relationship. I had friends who’d lost parents, who’d gone through divorce, miscarriage, foreclosure.

For Pete’s sake, I was teaching English to refugees who had lost their entire families. And the worst thing that had ever happened to me was the fairly mutual end to a short-ish relationship.

Clearly, I’ve lead a charmed life.
I said this to my friend as I sat weeping at her kitchen table. Her reply?
“Your problems are your problems. The fact that other people have different problems doesn’t negate yours. It’s not your fault that this is your first real heartbreak. Knowing that other people are struggling doesn’t make your struggle any easier and pretending you’re fine serves no one.”
It took me a while to really believe her. I am frequently the first person to wink and mutter “first world problems, amiright?” and I’m a big believer in my grandma’s saying “If the whole world put their problems in a pile, you’d be happy to take yours back.” And I maintain that this applies to problems like spilling Ikea caviar onto your laptop or getting a blister from breaking in your Fryes.
There’s little benefit to downplaying your pain – you can’t get past it that way.
There are people starving all over the world. This does not negate your eating disorder.
There are homeless people in every country. This does not negate the fact that your landlord evicted you illegally.
Millions of people have lost their parents. This does not negate the fact that it’s heartbreaking to have an emotionally distant mom or dad.
Much of the world didn’t have the opportunity to attend university. This does not negate your crippling college debt.
Of course, you should count your blessings.
Of course, you should check yourself if you fall apart every time things don’t go your way.
Of course, you should know your audience. Don’t complain about your boss to your chronically unemployed friend.
But know that it’s okay to be sad.
When things end. When someone you trusted hurts you. When life is, inevitably, unfair.
Take some time sit with it. Stop trying to guilt-trip and bargain your way out of it.

Know that some day, in the far and distant future, this will be one of those character-building experiences your mom told you about.And you’ll be able to write a blog post about it.

Do you ever feel guilty for feeling sad? Do you think there’s any merit in comparing your problems to other people’s problems? Has it ever made you feel better?

P.S. How to be less judgmental + more empathetic

photo credit: oscar keys // cc

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  1. Kaisa M.

    Spot on, Sarah!

    I have debated over it with a friend who once told me that I should think of starving kids in Africa when I am sad (and I am feeling devastated for some reason or another). I was like: But do people tell kids in Africa that they should never ever feel happy 'cos they ain't fat white people living in the West?! I mean, frankly, feelings and subjective and can in no case be compared. Pain is pain. Sadness is sadness. Just like happiness is happiness. Life is no emotions-competition!

    • Anonymous

      Love this comment ??

    • Autumn

      Yessss thank you for putting it bluntly. This makes so much sense !

  2. Alicia | Jaybird: Home in Motion

    Cheeky cheeky: And you'll be able to write a blog post about it.

    I want to send this to everyone I know. It seems like everyone struggles to prove that they are SO understanding, SO self-aware (combatting the Hannah/"Girls" mentality) that they frequently diminish significant problems because of it. While having some perspective is important, you can't apologize your way out of personal heartbreak or difficulty, and we shouldn't feel that we have to!

  3. Laura @ Unpunctuated Life

    I struggled with this in college. Everything seemed to be going right for me and yet I just wasn't happy, and I felt GUILTY about not being happy. But sometimes you just have to let yourself feel what you feel!

  4. Mollie  |  Jennings Brae Bank Farm

    My mom always says, "Don't tell someone 'It could be worse.' because their problem at that moment is the worst for them." It took me some time to realize that my mom was right about that. Also love your Grandma's saying – very true.

    • Kay Azzara

      This happened to me today, I was sad and the person I was speaking with started to tell me about other people and their struggles and negate my feelings and try to make me feel guilty for having them. Ive been misunderstood and shamed for crying my entire life. It adds insult to injury.

  5. Sarah Bishop

    Currently weathering a break up that came only semi-unexpectedly Sunday. This post is timely and helpful. From one Sarah to another, thank you.

  6. Monika

    OMG!! This is the perfect read that I really really needed!! I was feeling horribly guilty that I was planning my wedding to my LT boyfriend.Guilty, because, it would leave my very crabby,nagging,difficult mother who depends on me for everything, alone!! I was feeling sad that despite giving her everything & putting up with her constant cribbing that I was going to leave her alone. Honestly! I dearly need some peace & positivity in my life without having to feel guilty for wanting it. This, Sarah, is the perfect post!!

  7. The Divine Miss Em

    All. The. Time.

    I'm constantly apologizing and feeling guilty for things which are totally legit. I apologized for crying because my dad is in the hospital with a serious infection after surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. My boyfriend was like "Shut up. You have every right to be upset". I felt guilty for doing some much needed self care because it wasn't "contributing to the family".

    I think I'm going to print this post out and stick it on my bedroom wall.

  8. Rachael Loomis

    I love this post. So much truth and wisdom!!

  9. Rebecca Posts

    Love your grandma's wisdom. So true.

  10. Miss C

    I finished Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning early this year and one of the things that he said that really stuck with me is that grief is like gas. It fills your whole being (or space it is let out into) no matter how much or how little there is. It still hurts all over. I found that to be comforting. The book is great, I highly recommend it for other reasons as well.

  11. Jenn

    Such a valuable lesson. I think it's human nature, and maybe even slightly healing, to recognize that there are real problems in the world and that ours are so insignificant, however, hurt is hurt and it deserves some credence.

  12. Carolyn

    Apparently this is something I needed to hear today because you are the THIRD person who has said the same exact thing in the last twelve hours. Here's a pretty great TED talk about the same topic that you and your readers might enjoy:

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Wow! I guess you DID need to hear it! 🙂

  13. Camille

    Thank you thank you thank you. I have had a pile of mildly less-than-awesome things happen in the last few months (break-up, mono, laptop and phone dying, my uni work being really hard and not super fascinating) and as much as I beat myself up about being so fortunate and privileged, I think I just need to let myself wallow for a little bit. Ain't nothing wrong with a tear or two.

  14. Amy Pendergrass

    Love this post…so true, so well said. Thank you.

  15. Anonymous

    Thank you for this post.

    I have struggled with depression for about ten years, and my family only recently found out. Aside from telling me to "just snap out of it," they also tell me that other people have it worse than me. Shockingly, this does not make me feel better, but even worse, as well as guilty. I know things could be worse for me, and I know I am lucky in many respects – but that does not mean that my problems don't exist.

    • Stephanie Loudmouth

      I was diagnosed with depression when I was 11 (I'm now almost 27). It comes and goes, but I've found different ways to control it. Sometimes the things that family says can hurt the most. I would suggest finding a therapist or support group that will be more empathetic to your pain.

    • Anonymous

      Also struggling with depression (about 3 years), and sick of being told that I'm "ungrateful" and "should be glad my problems are so small." This permission to feel not-ok was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  16. megzone

    yes yes and yes..
    Been there done that.. still there doing it 🙂
    being humans we tend to panic at small things we tend to think a lot and more often than not we think of all the possible negative things than anything positive..
    every hiccup does not mean its the end of the world and yet it doesnt mean ur pain shud be compared to anyone else's – to each his own.
    And yet its ok to feel bad brood cry wail and finally, pick ur self up, dust urself and walk ahead! 🙂

    Today was one such day when a usually calm composed always chatty n bubbly me ended up letting my emotions take over and things got out of hand. And your post was bang on time to knock some sense into me 🙂
    So a BIG THANK YOU! 😀

  17. leelipman

    I'm a massive fan of your blog, and I think this is one of my favourite post to date. Just thank you for sharing something so wonderful, thought provoking and true!

  18. Aqiyl Aniys

    There is no part in downplaying your pain as you said, but I think there is another message here we should listen to. It is not that other people's pain negate your own pain, but I think the reason for this message is just for us to keep our pain in perspective by realizing that we are not the only ones feeling pain, so we don't feel like things are specifically against us. We can easily fall into self pity this way and stay consumed by our pain instead of learning from the situation so we can learn to handle thing differently and let the life experience improve of as human beings.

  19. Pam | a Blonde around the World

    Hi Sarah!
    I just discovered this blog!
    The whole concept of it is amazing! Well done!
    Will make it a daily read! 🙂

  20. WendyB

    Well said.

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