Particularly if you’ve never experienced it for yourself
“You shouldn’t feel that way,” is one of the rudest, most condescending phrases in the English language, and yet it’s one that I routinely hear a version of, particularly here on Medium where many people write about difficult things that they are facing in their lives, although I hear it plenty in a broader context as well.
It’s true that I don’t know for sure the motivation behind every story that talks about a difficult experience or a harmful societal dynamic, but based on what I know about human nature, it’s reasonable to believe that the vast majority of stories of this kind do so to feel heard and seen, as well as to process the difficult emotions that are in play. In the vast majority of cases, they aren’t looking for sympathy so much as understanding — an understanding that might perhaps contribute to things changing for the better.
I suppose that my feelings about this are largely colored by my 15 years as a trained life coach. I’ve listened to hundreds of people talk about what they are worried or upset about, and overwhelmingly, what they want is support, not pity. Everyone alive has faced difficulties and wounds, and although some people have objectively suffered more than the rest, in general, it’s not something that can be ranked — and it isn’t meant to be. There’s plenty of pain to go around, and even if yours isn’t “as bad” as what someone else has experienced, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still hurt or that it doesn’t affect you.
Telling someone who is in pain, “It’s not so bad,” or “Stop complaining,” is essentially telling them that their pain doesn’t matter, which just adds insult to injury. Besides the fact that it lacks empathy, assuming you know what it’s like to be someone else is absurd. Even if you are the same age, from the same city, from the same gender, racial and socioeconomic demographic with the same sexual orientation, you don’t know what it’s like to be somebody else. No two people have had the exact same experiences in life, or have the same inner resources for coping with them.
I remember a while back an Indian woman writing about navigating her sex life with her husband, and this non-Indian guy jumped in and interpreted the entire thing for her (as if she didn’t know how to interpret her own life), because he’d experienced something that he thought was similar in his relationship with a male lover. I was so amazed that this man had the gall to assume that he knew what it was like to be a married woman in a very traditional, patriarchal culture dealing with a topic as complex as female sexuality. He thought he was sympathizing, but instead, he was negating her own personal experience and over-writing it with his own.
I see this all the time with women or other marginalized people who are talking about their pervasive and on-going negative experiences. For example, the women who are speaking about their bad experiences at the hands of men aren’t saying that men as a gender are evil or crass. They are saying that they don’t like the way that they are treated by the large volume of men who do treat them in unacceptable ways. If one in six women will be raped and 90% of rapes are perpetrated by men, then it’s more than appropriate to talk about men raping women as a topic of concern.
If your response to that is, “It’s really not so bad,” you are essentially conveying to the person telling her story that she’s lying, overreacting, or that she should just learn to accept that this is her plight.
People from racial minorities are often treated this way as well, as if racism really doesn’t have a pervasive harmful effect, not just on people’s ability to succeed in this society, but on their mental and emotional health as well so they should stop complaining so much. Racial trauma is a medically recognized condition in which the cumulative effect of a lifetime of experiencing racism leaves some people with PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues.
Psychological science suggests that people who experience race-based stress and trauma frequently have similar experiences to people who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Distress can include flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, heart palpitations, poor sleep and overall heightened anxiety. But where PTSD can be caused by a single event, racial stress is ongoing, pervasive, generationally transmitted, and affects both individuals and collective communities. Thus, beyond PTSD symptoms, racial trauma has enduring and retriggered cognitive, emotional and somatic consequences.
Events that can cause racial trauma include threats of harm and injury, humiliating and shaming events and witnessing racial discrimination and microaggressions toward yourself or others. For example, seeing repeated videos of police killing people who look like you causes racial trauma. Hearing people in the community more concerned about property than black lives causes racial trauma. The cumulation of hundreds of well-meaning, seemingly innocuous comments about black peoples’ appearance, language and emotions causes racial trauma. Exposure to repeated stressors can lead to long-term increases in stress hormones in the body, which exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, is associated with a host of negative health outcomes, such as high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular events.
James Finn has written more than once about trying to explain to cis-het people why terms like “faggot” and colloquially using “gay” to mean stupid are harmful, only to often be told that he is over-reacting. But you don’t get to tell someone else whether or not your words or actions have negatively affected them or if you’ve actually hurt them. You don’t get to tell them whether a lifetime of seemingly minor cuts leads to the death of their soul any more than you get to speak to the validity of any of the major cuts. The people who expereince the wounds are the ones who get to say.
Believing that you have the right to evaluate someone else’s experience for them is part dodging self-responsibility and part dominance hierarchy dynamics. The dominance hierarchy is the pyramid-shaped social structure that has been a given in this country until very recently — one where white Christian heterosexual men hold the top positions of power and authority, and all others fall below them to varying degrees. It’s a social system where might makes right, and the most ruthless excel. It’s also a zero-sum construct, where if you don’t win, you lose. There is no us in this scenario, there are no peers. There is only every man for himself in a constant on-going ranking for pecking order.
One of the major components of this hierarchy is that those with more social power have the right to abuse those with less, who must accept the abuse stoically. Their only real recourse is to then dole out abuse to anyone who has even less social power. Those who complain about the abuse or oppression they are experiencing are seen to be out of line, unless they are near to the apex of the pyramid shaped social structure. In this social construct, only the concerns and comfort of the most dominant matter.
We see this being acted out every day, not just in racial, gender, and sexuality contexts, but in more micro-contexts as well. Abusive priests are often believed over the children and nuns that they have sexually assaulted because they have more social clout. We not only believe the word of those with more social power over those with less, but the defense mechanism that says that bad things only happen to those who have brought it upon themselves is also often in play.
But one very impactful way to create a better world is to mindfully choose not to default to this subconscious messaging and to instead listen to and believe when someone tells you they are in pain. “Psychological research tells us that talking about our pain can help soothe us, help us feel like we aren’t alone.” Much of what I write about is a way for me to process things that are happening in my life. Sharing it with other people helps me cope and it often assists me to get clearer about what I want. I imagine that many others feel the same.
What I’ve learned as a coach is that even if somebody is clearly contributing to their own misery, that’s not the place to begin when talking to them about it. Most people need to feel seen and understood, to have their wounds validated before they can see that although much of the situation isn’t in their control, perhaps some aspects are — and then feel empowered to act on them.
Aside from the fact that it’s just rude and uncaring to tell someone that you don’t believe or approve of how they’ve said they feel about something that has happened to them, it’s also counter-productive. No-one in the world has ever responded to that sort of insensitivity by saying, “Oh, you’re right. I don’t actually hurt. I’m really just fine and will go shut up now.”
You don’t get to decide how it’s appropriate for someone else to feel, particularly if you have never experienced what they have. And even if you have experienced the exact same things, and come from a very similar background, you still aren’t them. Empathy takes vulnerability, which is perceived as a weakness in a dominance hierarchy, but it’s actually an incredible strength. It takes courage and self-confidence to open yourself up to do something around which there is no guaranteed result, including caring about someone else.
There’s a reason in the movie Avatar that the Na’vi tell each other, “I see you.” It’s one of the most powerful, most loving, most connecting things that one person can say to another. It helps to heal the world, rather than to divide it. Even if you don’t understand why something is so difficult for someone else, even if the same thing wasn’t particularly difficult for you, or you overcame something that you perceive to be worse, you don’t get to judge someone else’s experience or their pain.
Are there hypochondriacs in the world? Sure, but there typically aren’t millions of them talking about having the same negative experiences based on the same societal dynamics. Just because you don’t personally understand something, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And just because you imagine that you’d act differently in their shoes doesn’t mean that you would. For example, the neuroscience of trauma response, particularly during a sexual assault, is completely different than the cultural narrative of how we think that people ought to respond.
Judging other people from a place of ignorance about their true situation, or from a place of feeling superior is reflex that we’ve learned from the dominance hierarchy that we are steeped in, but we have the capability to unlearn that and be more kind, more understanding, and more empathetic by being more mindful. That doesn’t mean that we don’t still use discretion and common sense, or that every harmful circumstance can be eradicated, but it does mean that we can at least try to bring light rather than further pain to those in our sphere of influence simply by listening to them and seeing them.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
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