Enough with the Trauma Olympics

You’re dealing with so much more than I am. I don’t want to bother you.

A friend sent me those lines in a message last month. She’d asked how I was doing, and I’d told her the truth: battling hypomania and urges to self-harm, struggling to pay my bills, and coping with a painful breakup.

My friend, on the other hand, has a difficult relationship with her in-laws, and was struggling with how much time to spend with them over Christmas. And suspecting that after four marriages, I might know a thing or two about all sorts of in-law issues, my friend wanted to run some things by me.

Once she heard what I was dealing with, however, she told me we could talk another time when I was under less stress.

I thanked her for her concern, but I made the point I always make: I’m not competing in the trauma Olympics and neither is anyone else. We can’t survive in a world where we’re constantly rating our suffering against everyone else’s.

Emotional pain doesn’t happen on a measurable scale like earthquakes or hurricanes or tornadoes. We can’t say “My friend is experiencing a category 2 traumacane, but mine is a category 3, so I have an excuse for not listening to their story.”

This doesn’t mean that losing a job is the same as, God forbid, losing a child to cancer. I’m not promoting false equivalence. I’m suggesting generosity when it comes to other people’s experience.

I take a great interest in other people’s stories. Perhaps a little of that is because I’m a writer looking for material. Some of it is that, despite being a thorough-going INFJ and Enneagram 4, I like people. But a lot of the reason that I like hearing what other folks are going through is that it gets me out of my own considerable self-absorption.

So for me, the worse things get, the more painful things are, the MORE I need to hear other people talk about their pain. If I’m in a bad space — say, worrying about being homeless, or having flashbacks to severe trauma, or struggling with a brain that seems to burn too hot — I need care. But for the sake of sanity and self-esteem, I also need to feel competent as a friend and fellow human. And nothing makes me feel more competent than to help another person through something difficult.

The moment I believe I am in too much pain to help anyone else is the moment I’ve completely lost the battle. Look, if I’m so overwhelmed I can’t listen, I’ll tell you. But most of the time, no matter how bad it gets, when you ask me to help you, you’re helping me.