I look great.
I am nearly six feet tall, my hair and nails are coloured to perfection, I coordinate fashionable outfits, and wear an accent of makeup.
More than that, I do great. Model. Competitive dancer, gymnast, runner. Performances in symphony orchestras on three musical instruments. A+ on every college exam. Published novelist. Singer and self-taught guitar song-writer.
Have I said enough? Probably. I gave a thorough description, so you have me figured out now, right? My outside sounds pretty idealistic -maybe even described as perfect.
But that is the outside. What you don’t see, is how desperately disgusting and worthless I feel on the inside. What you don’t see, is I struggle to live day by day -sometimes moment to moment- tormented by multiple mental illnesses. You don’t see my suicidal thoughts or how immeasurably difficult it is for me to force a bite of necessary food into my mouth. You don’t see obsessive rumination in place of sleep (Did I accidentally replace X with Y on question 6 of my algebra exam?) You see my smile and hear my laugh but don’t know how out of control manic I am; or you don’t see me at all for weeks as I am hospitalized again on a psychiatry unit.
You, on the other hand, have it together. You know the secret ingredient to living a successful life and I’ve somehow missed out. You are happy all the time and have no problems.
Do you feel offended by those statements? Try to think how many times you’ve thought that of someone else. Even if only the tall well-dressed young woman who smiles as you pass on the sidewalk.
I spent too many years comparing my insides to other peoples’ outsides.
My world changed when I began to practice not comparing. And yes, it takes a lot of practice. For me the key to taking this step was threefold: eliminate self-pity, stop judging, and have compassion. I am unsure of how or where I started. I can’t tell you if they developed in a certain order, or if they all grew together at the same pace. However I now recognize each as an invaluable skill of surviving life, and I see how each skill is enmeshed with the other.
Everyone has a story. Everybody experiences pain. Every person endures a traumatic event in a lifetime. I am certain of this. But difficulty arises when I compare my story to someone else’s. The aforementioned three skills invert to feeling sorry for myself, negative judgment (of myself or others), and intolerance. I become isolated because no one understands my story. They don’t understand because I make a judgment that I am either better off or worse off: their life has been far more difficult than mine; or, they have never experienced the trauma or emotional pain I suffer. In either scenario, I have decided no one can relate. This turns out to be very lonely.
I needed to understand this very clearly: Pain is pain. People have varying thresholds. What one person may experience as a traumatic event, another may not. However, the pain we all feel at times is just as valid as the next person’s.
When I stopped thinking of myself as so hard-done-by, and stopped judging another person’s situation as “nothing compared to what I’ve been through”, I equalized the playing turf of life. With this as a consistent practice I am able to be a person among persons, instead of the outsider no one could possibly understand. The truth is people will not understand my personal circumstances just as I will never fully understand theirs. But believing I am different is the lie that separates me from the rest of the human race. When I am hurting, others understand my hurt because at some point in their life they have experienced pain. Pain is pain.
Mental illness doesn’t come in a single identifiable outside package. Mine certainly doesn’t, so why should I expect everyone else’s personal battles to be obvious? Who gives me the authority to judge whether a person’s trauma is “significant” or not? I don’t know what is going on inside for people, so today I choose to have compassion for each individual as they walk out their own story.