It's time to allow yourself to feel
During recent months, I have been struck by the number of times I have heard different people say the words, "it could be worse," when discussing their anxieties, fears and sadness. With the world going through a pandemic and many people losing loved ones or becoming critically ill themselves, it seems hard for others, who have been spared such experiences, to allow themselves to be scared, lonely or stressed.
After all, if they have not experienced the illness itself or the terrible grief of losing a partner, relative or dear friend, surely they are lucky and shouldn’t complain? However, telling yourself that "it could be worse," or "I shouldn’t complain..." can lead to a suppression of emotions which can have a negative impact on mental and emotional health. Sadness can become depression, and stress can turn into anxiety.
You have the right to feel whatever you are feeling. It is possible to feel grateful for what is going well in your life, and still feel depressed or anxious. One state does not cancel out the other. However, it isn’t always easy for people to believe they have the right to all of their feelings.
Ditch the words "it could be worse"
Many of us may have received messages when we were children, implicit or explicit, that encouraged us to bottle up our emotions. We may even have felt less lovable if we were angry or sad. There is a great therapeutic book for children, written by Margot Sunderland, called Nifflenoo the Nevermind. Nifflenoo is a little boy who dismisses all of his more painful feelings with the words, "nevermind". As Nifflenoo’s best friend is called Colin Could be Worse, it goes without saying that he is not a pal who validates his friend’s emotions! In the story, all of Nifflenoo’s more difficult feelings get stuffed into his body until he finally erupts. In the end, with help, he realises that he does mind and is happier and lighter for feeling his feelings.
Thinking that "it could be worse," or that you don’t have a right to complain, can stop people from seeking the help they need. If you are suffering from depression or anxiety but believe you shouldn’t be, you are judging yourself at a time when you need to be kind to yourself. Comparing your experience to someone else’s and deciding you are lucky by comparison invalidates what you are going through. The truth is that conditions like depression and anxiety do not discriminate. They impact all ages and social groups and are experienced by people in many different situations, including those whose lives appear to be going really well from the outside.
Comparing your experience to someone else’s and deciding you are lucky by comparison invalidates what you are going through.
I have also noticed that the concept "it could be worse," can be used as a way of avoiding an issue. If someone has experienced a trauma, for instance, but is not ready to explore the underlying cause, brushing it aside by invalidating it may feel safer. In order to talk about emotional distress, people need to feel safe and to trust the person they are talking to.
In the counselling relationship, as in any relationship, it can take time for that trust to develop and for clients to feel ready to share about challenging events in their past. It is very important, therefore, for therapists to respect the pace a client needs to go at. For some people, it may take a long time for them to be ready to let go of a well-used defence mechanism that has provided them with protection over the years.
In fact, believing or knowing that others may have been through worse may make a painful experience more bearable and feel less lonely. Whether you are using the words "it could be worse," to protect yourself or to divert yourself, they are words that, in the long-term, are detrimental to good emotional and mental health. After all, brushing difficult feelings under the carpet will not get rid of them.
Learn more about counselling and the counselling relationship.
COVID-19 has been described as a global trauma, and its impact on mental health is likely to be long-lasting. Whatever your experience, at this time, your feelings do matter and you do have a right to express them. To truly let them go, you need to be able to work through and process challenging emotions and experiences. People are sometimes afraid that taking a deeper look at feelings will lead to rumination - continuously thinking about the problem in a circular way.
A therapeutic environment can be a safe place to learn how to express your challenging feelings and, in time, let them go. A good counsellor will take your emotions seriously and see them as unique to you rather than compare them on a scale with other people’s. They will also respect the pace you need to work at and know when you are ready to let go of defence mechanisms.