You never know what someone is going through
Do you feel like you’re completely understood?
The words, “You never know what someone is going through,” were once said to me by my oldest sister, Michelle. I never forgot these words for the compassion and meaning they have had to me since she said it to me in 2009.
At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship and my sister was engaged. My guy was across the country and her guy was in the Marines. At some point, I mentioned that her situation was much harder than mine. Her reply was, “You never know what someone is going through.” She explained to me that her college roommate held no sympathy for her, because the roommate’s fiance was across the world, while Michelle’s was at least in the same country.
Of course I found this lack of sympathy unreasonable, as my sister couldn’t communicate much with her fiance while the roommate had daily calls with her fiance, but this was a powerful illustration to me of why we shouldn’t compare our situations.
We don’t tend to notice the hardships in the problems of others. My sister could look at this roommate and envy being able to talk to her fiance whenever she wanted, while her roommate, at the same time, could envy the shorter distance and closer time zones.
Don’t say “You can’t imagine how hard it is”
I really wish people didn’t say this to other people. This phrase (in my opinion) puts down the difficulties that other people have had and claim that your problems are harder than theirs.
When describing her anxiety to my husband, a friend told him to imagine the most stressful situation he’s ever been in and imagine that as every day of his life. My problem with this is the assumption that her stresses are greater than his. While I know this person has experienced many trials, Ross has had terrifying experiences that I'm sure my friend couldn't relate to, and to downplay that feels demeaning. You never know what someone has been through.
Don’t say “You’re so lucky”
These are more words that can be quite insensitive. Now, truth be told, I am a huge believer in always reminding yourself of the blessings in your life. Truly, there is much to be grateful for, even in the depths of our trials. However, the tone with which we say this is critical. If you are condescending, that does no one any good. It just inflates your ego and makes them feel like you don’t understand their problems.
Now, after someone has had a chance to vent, it could be helpful to throw in a few positive things to be grateful for. Such as, “Wow, I can’t imagine how hard it is to go through an illness like that. Thank goodness you have such a loving husband though - that’s a blessing for sure.” You must approach it with the right attitude.
Please see below some sketches of extreme versions of not having compassion. While this is humorous, how often do we approach people like this when we should approach with compassion?
The main point I’m trying to make is to be compassionate. Consider the fact that others have experiences, sometimes past your understanding, and even if their problems don’t seem as bad for you, remind yourself that at the least, they are difficult for that person.
Our trials are relative. What is hard to one person isn’t always as hard to another. To an autistic person, you can truly torture them by putting the wrong colored M&M’s together, but to me, I couldn’t care less. I wouldn't find a calculus class difficult as most people, however watching people dance ballroom is harder for me than it is for most people. Similarly, there are certain kinds of insults that will bother me more than you and others that will bother you more than me. There are things that matter more to me than you and vice-versa. As such, we can’t compare our problems!
With your families, children, spouses, friends, and everyone you interact with, consider things from their perspective and try to find compassion for their difficulties.
I’ll always appreciate my sister’s compassion for me when we went through similar trials together. Our breakups with those same boys were two days apart from each other, so we went through waiting and breakups together. Though what Michelle went through was leagues harder than what I went through, I will never forget how kind she was and how she never implied that her situation was harder than mine. She treated me as an equal and took my difficulties seriously, even though she indeed had a harder time.
Next time someone confides or vents a problem to you, I want you to really search for compassion for them. Try imagining what it would be like if this problem was hard beyond your understanding. It might not be (since many problems we vent about turn out to be somewhat petty), but try taking someone seriously and see how much they appreciate it. Because at the very least, it means a lot to them, and if you care about them, that alone can give it meaning to you.