I Don't Care That It 'Could Be Worse' When I'm in Pain and Losing Hope
If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
“Hey, look on the bright side” has become, at least for me, a consistently common precursor to someone saying something “stupid.” Sure, I could have had something worse happen to me; but I didn’t. So, good for me? When I hear this phrase, I think of the old Road Runner cartoons when Wile E. Coyote would fall off a cliff leaving a coyote-shaped hole in the ground when he landed, and then just when he pops his head up out of the hole, a giant anvil falls on his noggin. Look on the bright side is kinda like saying, “At least the anvil didn’t hit you.” Never mind that I just fell off a cliff.
When used light-heartedly in day-to-day passing, it can be funny. I think back to a time when my wife and I were driving around Chicago with my brother and his wife. As is common for Chicago’s weekend traffic by the waterfront, the car had moved about 100 feet in about as many minutes. I spoke up to offer a lighthearted, “It could be worse. At least we don’t have to pee.” When in a level of comedic timing I could never have imagined, before I could finish my thought, what happened instead was, “It could be worse…” BAM! The car next to us rear-ended the car in front of them. Suddenly, my punchline was no longer necessary. (Just to be clear, nobody was hurt. Although, ironically, I was now laughing so hard I had to pee.)
In general, I understand the sentiment I believe is behind this statement. A person is trying to cheer me up after something went wrong. I do my best to be appreciative of the effort, but I think people don’t really understand the hurt so often caused by the attempt. Instead of shifting my eyes to something that might brighten my mood, I instead feel as if my current situation is pushed aside as something I should never have felt poorly about in the first place. My experience is delegitimized since whatever happened is apparently, “not adequate for suffering.” In other words, my pain wasn’t “bad enough.”
I will grant, there is some truth to the statement since no matter what the situation, things could be worse. We could have broken both arms instead of one, had two loved ones die instead of one, or lost a home instead of a car. It is for this reason. however, I see a “look on the bright side” approach as particularly damaging. I want to scream, “So what!” I don’t care that it could be worse; I am in pain, I have very real trauma going on, and I’m losing sight of hope.
Positivity is an important approach to much of life and, in and of itself, is not a bad thing at all. Especially when coupled with a balance of realism, positivity is a healthy and enviable trait. The difference is when positivity mutates into a toxic positivity. There is only a fine line that separates the two viewpoints but the impact of crossing that line can be tremendous.
Toxic positivity occurs when a person fails to acknowledge the existing pain of another person by attempting to diminish or flat-out ignore the struggle of the other person. What is often hard to navigate in this kind of situation is that the perpetrator usually has no idea what they are doing. They may think they are genuinely helping, it could be a protective response due to their inability to face anguish, or they don’t realize the extent to which the person is hurting. It’s because of this I try not to get too upset when I hear a version of this kind of “help.” I know many people don’t get it, I have been guilty of it myself, and probably will be again. Nobody is going to get it right all the time. Just because I will never be perfect in my attempts to help doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. So trying is something I will continue to do.
A first good step is to pause and acknowledge the person and validate their struggle, remembering that even when things could be worse, they could also be better. The ability to slide up and down the scale has little relevance when it comes to feeling broken. When I was going through inpatient treatment for my mental health after my last attempt to end my life by suicide, I would have people tell me I was blessed because I was still alive. This didn’t help. While technically true, I didn’t feel blessed. I didn’t need someone to tell me I should cheer up. I needed someone to tell me they could see what I was going through was hell. To let me feel like my pain was real and allow me to have a safe space for figuring out how to live the life I was so blessed to have because, at that moment, I was feeling cursed by still being alive.
Making a practice of listening to someone who is struggling is a great way to avoid pitfalls. On my first day in the hospital, I had a therapist sit by the side of my bed and tell me how his life sucked. It was a country song kind of scenario: wife left him, lost his house, etc etc. I think he was trying to let me know that we can survive after bad things happen in life. “You had it worse than me. Congratulations,” I thought and then ignored him. The therapist who sat next to me on the couch and said, “What do you think you need?” — she was the one who put a crack in my walls.
I get the urge to fix it. I am a fix-it kind of person. So when we, myself included, meet a person who is struggling, I ask that we try to remember this…
Some things can’t be fixed, just navigated. Instead of trying to find a positive spin, the best thing we can do is join each other in the journey.
Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash