I have lost count of the number of people in my life who have recently uttered the words:
“I shouldn’t really complain. At least we don’t live in Queensland.”
There is nothing like a dramatic natural disaster to give you a sense of perspective, especially if it’s close to home. Bushfires, tsunamis, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, and mining disasters can all make you realise that however overwhelming your problems may seem, they could nearly always be worse. It is useful to be grateful for what we do have, in the midst of stressing over what we don’t.
And yet, while a sense of perspective is a fine thing to have, in some ways this kind of thinking can add to the distress, instead of relieving it. It becomes a sort of survivor guilt.
“How can I stress over my job when people have lost everything?”
“I can’t believe I’m shouting at my kids over their behaviour when kids have died in Queensland.”
These thoughts, and many others like them, all have the sub-text: “People are coping with much worse stuff. I must be a selfish, hopeless, useless person if I can’t cope with my relatively minor crises.”
So now, as well as coping with whatever is stressful in your life, you are also beating yourself up over feeling stressed at all. Pretty soon it gets recursive – you are stressed about feeling stressed, which makes you stressed… etc etc ad nauseam (literally).
But here’s the thing. Life is stressful. There will always be people undergoing worse things, but that doesn’t make the day to day traumas of life any easier to handle. Our kids will drive us to the point of screaming. Our cars will break down. Our air conditioners will conk out in the middle of a heat wave. Our jobs will be stressful in hundreds of different ways. We’ll be sick. We’ll be sleep deprived. We’ll be cranky. Sometimes it will all pile up, as it has for me recently, into a mountain of stress that seems utterly insurmountable. Then we will scream. Or cry. Or throw things. Or shout at the people we love.
Sometimes all of the above.
And this is the important bit: our stress, be it large or small, does not add to the distress of all those people suffering worse torments. Getting upset about smaller stuff does not change our compassion and empathy for those coping with disasters. We can’t help them by pretending our lives are smooth and trouble free, even as we are mentally climbing the walls.
Sometimes the small stuff bites (think mozzies, or head lice!). And sometimes screaming is the best relief you can find. It’s ok if others are screaming about bigger stuff. We can all scream together – think of it as group therapy.