The Power in Validating What You're Going Through
May 8, 2019
When therapist Lori Gottlieb was suddenly dumped by the man she thought she’d marry, the experience shook her so much that she ended up in therapy herself, trying to work through what had happened.
But as she vented to her therapist about the end of the relationship, she says, she found herself downplaying what she’d gone through: It’s not like they were married, after all. They didn’t have kids together. It was upsetting, sure, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
Gottlieb realized she was doing something she’d seen many of her own patients do: measuring her pain on a hierarchy, and minimizing it since she figured it wasn’t as bad as what others might be dealing with.
“I think that we treat our emotional health different from our physical health,” Gottlieb, author of the recent New York Times bestseller Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, tells Shine. “When something feels off in our body, we get it checked out. But emotionally, often we rank our pain: ‘My pain isn’t really that bad.’ We compare our pain to other people.”
It’s easy to internalize the message that what you’re going through is "no biggie." On Twitter, we joke about “first world problems.” On the news, we’re reminded over and over again how bad things are in other communities. “It could be worse” becomes a mantra, trotted out to help us feel better about whatever it is we’re dealing with.
The problem, Gottlieb says, is that our minds don’t work that way.
Even if something doesn’t feel like it should be that big a deal—say, a declined credit card or the death of a great aunt—our emotions aren’t easily reasoned away. “Pain is pain,” she says.
Those feelings of failure and impermanence are just as real as if they were triggered by flunking out of college or the death of a parent. Ranking them low on the mental hierarchy of What Deserves Attention doesn’t make them disappear, but rather the opposite.
“When you try to ignore your feelings, they get bigger because they need attention,” she says. “Soon, you’re dealing with a compounded version of it.” What was something that could’ve been acknowledged, mourned, and processed becomes almost crippling, even impacting your mood or relationships.
Comparing and minimizing your emotions doesn’t just make them bigger—it can also add another layer to the mix. “I think what happens is people feel a lot of shame,” Gottlieb says. “(They think), 'Why should I be depressed? Why should I be anxious? Why am I still grieving after 5 years?'”
That shame can bring on more feelings of inadequacy—"Why am I so bad at dealing with my emotions?"—which adds to the emotional pile-up. It can also stop us from taking advantage of one of the best ways to work through difficult situations: talking them through with friends.
“There’s an emotional toll of holding something inside,” Gottlieb says. “Just giving something a little bit of air, just one conversation with friends, can lift that burden.”
Plus, she points out, being open with your own suffering helps others feel validated with what they’re dealing with. “It helps the person you’re talking to, because that person has more permission to talk about what they’re going through,” Gottlieb says.
So the next time you feel down, or stressed, or overwhelmed—before you minimize it, try acknowledging it.
Give yourself permission to really feel what you’re going through.
That might mean just sitting for a few moments, or calling a friend to unload. If it’s an ongoing situation, or something that’s affecting your day-to-day life, consider seeing professional support from a doctor or therapist.
As you process whatever you’re coping with, keep watch for comparisons or minimizers and remind yourself that the mind doesn’t work that way—pain is pain.
The same goes for your friends and loved ones. If someone opens up but then tries to downplay what they’re going through, or adds that it’s probably nothing compared to what you’ve dealt with, gently push back. Gottlieb suggests saying something like, “We don’t need to compare our problems, and I’m interested in what you’re saying.”
Make it clear that what your friend’s saying matters, and that you want them to be able to talk about it.
“You don’t have to be falling apart to be suffering,” Gottlieb says. “If something feels off, go get help before it gets worse. You’ve suffered enough.”