Today, my co-author in the Women Who Inspire book inspired me to re-look at the concept of comparing our struggles to those of others. This is not a new concept, I’ve always found it fascinating. After I was in the crash and went into group therapy, I had to leave because it was this weird energy of people saying things like “oh, you think that’s bad? My experience was way worse…” It still happens from time to time (and I’ve even caught myself doing this) when people hear my story and they’ve experienced some form of trauma and they’ll come up and say something like “Thank you for giving your talk. I could totally relate because I went through ________… ‘of course it was nothing as bad as what you went through.’”
So, we do it on both ends. Why? What I’ve learned and I try to live my life by is that we all experience things and if they’re effecting us negatively to whatever degree, then they’re bad and we should pay attention to fix them, not get caught up in whether they’re bad enough or severe enough.
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I remember feeling like my experience didn’t warrant the diagnosis. It seems so silly now when I think about it because it doesn’t really matter what caused the PTSD, the PTSD was debilitating and needed to be taken care of. But, it was really a struggle for me in the beginning because I (learned through lots of therapy) had some pretty serious validation issues. I talk about this a lot, I grew up in a culture (as many of us have/did/are) of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “don’t dwell on the negative,” “there’s no use crying over spilled milk.” These are phrases that don’t allow us to take a moment and process the crap situation we’re in, even if it’s seemingly small. And, if we’re not allowed to process the small crap situations, we aren’t learning the skills needed to acknowledge and process the really big crap situations we may find ourselves in. And, when that happens (and I’m speaking from some pretty serious experience here) it can truly be life or death. I wrote in my blog yesterday about denying medication after the crash and how it nearly killed me. Another way of saying that is that I was denying the crap situation I was in. I was trying to justify it to myself and pull myself up by my bootstraps when I was truly, physically unable to do that.
I have found in my incessant observations (because I find psychology and human behavior FASCINATING) and experience that one of the biggest skills we can gift ourselves with is the skill of acknowledgement. Acknowledgement doesn’t mean you’re dwelling and sometimes you were really F-ing excited about drinking that milk that spilled so a few tears are warranted. The thing is that we can’t expect other people to acknowledge the crap situation for us. We need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge it and then handle it in our own way.
With regard to my PTSD, it was being acknowledged all day long by professionals who know what the heck they’re talking about, but those closest to me didn’t understand it and they certainly didn’t want to see me in the state I was in so they were afraid to acknowledge it (I think anyway on some level) because it was too scary to think this might be the new me. So, everyone (including myself – at least to the degree that I could) just tried to ignore it and move on. No need to dwell, after all.
The thing I’ve learned is that if you acknowledge your situation, you’re able to move through it SO MUCH FASTER! The best way I remind myself of this is by thinking about the flashbacks I was having. My PTSD manifested in me having up to three flashbacks a day (like full blown, I was on the ground, back at the crash, flashbacks) that would send me into panic attacks that would only subside when I passed out. It was brutal on my mind, my body and those around me. They would be triggered anytime I got startled. So, a car backfires or slams on it’s breaks, a fire engine goes by, someone yells too loudly, etc…the thing is, I live in Los Angeles so loud noises are part of daily life. Not good.
And, I tried…man, I tried so hard to stop them.
This went on for several years until I started to acknowledge. I would tell people around me that I might have one. Some took that as me “looking for attention.” I did it because one of the most stressful things for me was the idea that I might have a flashback and traumatize the person I was with because they didn’t know I had PTSD. I mean, the thing about mental injuries (that’s what I call it because it can totally be healed) is that 95% of the time you’re totally fine (or you at least look totally fine). So, imagine your surprise if you don’t know that I have flashbacks and we’re walking down the street and a car backfires and I’m suddenly on the ground screaming because people are literally dying around me in my head and I can’t talk to you because I’m no longer present, I’m back at the crash…not fun for you…right?
So, on top of all the stress I was feeling, being around people who didn’t know was even more stressful. So, I acknowledged it and begin telling people. I kept it casual and light and just informed them. No “dwelling,” just acknowledging and informing. Once I started to do that, I felt a little less stressed and the flashbacks started happening less.
Then I started to acknowledge (to myself) that I have flashbacks and I can’t fight them when they happen. So, I stopped fighting them and you know what happened? They began to get shorter and shorter until they became panic attacks without being trapped in the crash again (so, no more flashbacks at all) and then after several more years, no more panic. It was pretty cool!
Listen, going through crap situations SUCKS! It really does. So, let’s just acknowledge that, be kind to ourselves, understand that we can get through it, ask for the help we might need, take the day off of work to cry over the spilled milk, seek out therapy for PTSD, figure out how we work and fill our tool boxes with tools to help us get through those types of situations. If you broke or even sprained (which by the way can be worse than a break!!! See how we’re always comparing???) your leg, you wouldn’t deny it. You would get help and take care of it. It’s the same with emotional life, the more we deny it, the bigger it becomes.
Then, on the flip side of denying, we have to be really careful not to get caught in the comparing aspect. The, “my life is worse than your life” or the “their life is better than mine and I’ll never be able to have that” mentality. Be careful not to wear that as a badge of honor. I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend about competition and I realized I have a sort of unusual take on it. I don’t believe in it…let me clarify. I don’t believe in competing with others mentally. I believe a little “healthy” competition (like, I was in speech competition in high school – don’t laugh, it was fun!) can be great! But, I always competed with myself, my last high score, how can I do better, etc. I didn’t really care what the other competitors were doing because it was more about bettering myself. Listen, whatever motivates you to do better, is awesome, but it was just an interesting conversation because I noticed that this person’s competing with other people mentality was really self-defeating. Meaning, they began to look at all those around who had better lives than them and they were depressed about it because they didn’t think they could achieve that level because the position was already “taken.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that we’ve really got to understand how we work. If competing with others motivates you to better yourself, then GREAT! If it creates a defeatists and bitter attitude and you start living in that mindset, then that’s not good at all. Why would you do that to yourself?
I am always saying “create your life” and that means acknowledging where you are, finding out how you work, identifying what you love about yourself and life and what you don’t and working on removing those things you don’t love and bringing in the things that you do love. It doesn’t mean crap isn’t going to happen, it just means that when the crap does happen, you know what motivates you and how you work enough to move through it to get to the good.
Anyway, that’s what my conversation with Jewell got me to thinking. I hope you’ll tune into her interview when it comes out on Sept. 15th because she’s got some really great tips on how to deal with life’s crap situations and not so crap situations too!
If you want to know more about Jewell, click below and have an inspired day and please, take care of yourself.
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