“I’m so much better now, and life is great!”
This simple, and mostly accurate, message is often present in my blog posts…and I have mixed feelings about it. Partly because my life is still quite messy and affected by trauma. But mostly, because I worry. I worry that the hope in my words will sometimes discourage those of you currently struggling with severe PTSD symptoms, depressive or anxious thoughts, or the sense of dread that you aren’t going to make it…or that you don’t want to even if you could.
If this describes you, even 3% of the time, I would like to say something: it’s not a competition.
It’s not a competition. It doesn’t really matter who has the worse trauma history or who is “doing recovery” better (e.g. using their coping skills the most consistently, hasn’t needed in-patient or partial hospitalization for the longest, etc.) It doesn’t really matter at all!
Tell me, why do we compare our trauma histories or recovery processes? The reason I’m most familiar with is to shame myself for having a hard time, at any given moment in my healing. Shame is a fantastic way to distract ourselves from the healing we need to do. It’s fantastic because shame screams that we aren’t worthy of feeling what we are feeling or struggling like we are struggling. Shame does not change how depressed we feel or stop us from struggling so hard. It just makes us feel worse about our depression and struggles to get through the day. Shame looks us in the eyes, in a gaze we can’t break, and says: “Not only are you [insert harsh, judgmental word] for feeling (or acting) [insert feeling or behavior], you are also [insert degrading belief about yourself].” Since we all love the topic of shame, let’s try a few, shall we?
“Not only are you ridiculous for feeling so sad, you are also never going to accomplish anything significant.”
“Not only are you weird for avoiding sex, you are also going to be terrified of sex for the rest of your life because of your messed up childhood.”
“Not only are you selfish for spending so much time in trauma treatment, you are also going to ruin your daughter’s childhood and put her in therapy, too.”
Notice how shame traps and paralyzes us? Shame offers no way out. If we really are doomed like the above sentences describe, what is there to strive for? What’s there to hope for?
So I worry that my posts that are hope-filled will end up discouraging some of you some of the time. With that in mind, here is my request:
Say “no” to comparison that only brings shame. Say “no!” Work less on being like me or others in trauma recovery, and work more on recognizing and saying “no” to comparison shame. Become an expert in recognizing the difference between guilt — which sometimes has a rightful place in our lives — and shame, which is almost never appropriate or helpful.
Guilt sometimes tells us the truth. “Anna, you are viewing your boyfriend as a thing to give you what you want, not as a person with his own needs.”
But shame? Shame usually tells us big, fat lies. “Anna, you are the most selfish, self-centered girlfriend ever, and you will never be capable of truly loving another person.”
What’s crazy about comparison is that it can go on and on and on, passing from one person to the next to the next, with no limit. Let’s take trauma survivors (who are freakin’ masters in comparison) for example:
Person A: “I was sexually abused, but it was by an uncle and only happened a few times. Person B, on the other hand, was sexually abused by her own dad and it went on for years! I don’t have anything to complain about (i.e. I shouldn’t feel as sad or angry as I do).”
Person B: “Yes, its true I was abused by my dad, and that’s bad. But, it eventually stopped when I became a pre-teen. Person C, though, was abused until she finally left her home at 19 years of age! So my abuse wasn’t THAT bad.”
Person C: “Well, yes. I was abused for my entire childhood, but it was only from one person. I heard Person D was abused by four different people, all of them family members! Can you imagine?! So I could have had it worse.”
Person D: “Yeah, it sucks that everyone around me seemed to have the hots for me. However, I did have a kind grandmother who loved me and gave me healthy attention. So at least I’m not like Person E, whose childhood was a pure hell-hole with abuse being the only constant!”
Person E: “I heard about a boy that was ritually abused by a cult of both family and non-family members until he was 25 years old, when he was finally freed! What could be worse than that? My story is bad, but I think ritual abuse is the worst kind of abuse! I don’t know how anyone comes back from that.”
You get the point. And believe me, person F will have something to say, too. But let’s just assume that — theoretically — we finally arrive at person Z. And person Z has had such a miserable life that she agrees; her abuse is officially THE WORST possible. Can you imagine how lonely person Z would be? How alone she would feel in her sadness, anger, confusion?
Why would person Z be so alone in her pain? It isn’t be because her abuse was the worst possible. It’s because persons A, B, C, D, etc. compared their own pain to hers. And they believed that their own pain wasn’t worth working through and healing from. Sadly, they decided they didn’t deserve compassion from themselves or others (or God). So they won’t know how to enter into person Z’s world of pain. They won’t be capable of identifying with person Z’s pain. They will, in fact, be scared of person Z herself.
And they won’t know how to help person Z because they never received help themselves. What does “help” even look like, they will wonder.
So person Z will be very lonely indeed. She won’t feel like wearing the fancy “Survivor of the Worst Possible Abuse” badge offered her. She would have much prefered some company and a hand to hold.
So bottom line: we are all part of the alphabet of pain. And when I say, “all,” I’m not just thinking of trauma survivors. If you are human, I have YOU in mind. (Sorry, zombies!) If you’ve struggled with moderate depression for reasons you aren’t sure of, work through that depression! You’ll then be able to lend a much more helpful hand to person A, B, or even Z than if you compare and shame yourself out of doing the work you need to do.
And let person Z give you a hug. If you do, your hug back will be more healing than you know.