There was a chill in the air when I woke up the other morning. I opened my eyes before dawn and pulled a blanket high around my shoulders, burying my face in my pillow as I mourned the end of summer. I had been guffawing at friends who were posting “last day of summer” photos on social media just the weekend before. There are technically still two weeks left, I thought to myself as I scrolled through Instagram. And yet here we were, in fall already. I begrudgingly extricated myself from my warm bed, pulled on leggings and a sweatshirt, and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I checked the weather app on my phone and it read…67 degrees?
Well, that can’t be right.
But sure enough, my phone was correct. It was 67 degrees, and I was acting as though it was in the fifties.
It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? Just five months ago, 67 degrees would have been perfectly balmy. I would have rejoiced and pulled out my shorts. Instead, because of the hot summer we had, all I wanted to wear were jeans and a t-shirt. Compared to 90 degrees, 67 was cold.
I can very easily grasp the concept of perspective on this very tangible level. But where I struggle to wrap my head around it is on a mental level. See, I play awful comparison games between myself and others, and I almost always neglect to factor perspective into the equation.
For example, on Labor Day weekend, my brother and I both signed up for a seven-mile race. He is much faster than I am, and finished before me, placing 19th overall. I was really proud of myself when I first finished, but began immediately criticizing myself once those results sheets were posted. In my mind, his time and placement put a damper on my own personal accomplishments, diminishing them significantly. The doubt crept in. I had to check myself, reminding my rational brain that, while this was my first race, it was in no way my brother’s—he is a seasoned runner. Not only that—he’s got a solid ten inches of height on me. Comparing the two of us without any sort of context or perspective was ridiculous and only served to do me harm.
I find that I, and many others, often especially struggle to retain perspective when pain and suffering are involved. When I was in therapy for treatment of my anorexia, I would frequently hear other patients’ life stories. Eating disorders are often associated with some sort of trauma, and while not all of the traumatic events are the kind you read about in the news or see in Netflix specials, some of my fellow patients had endured terribly traumatic events. It made me question the validity of my own pain and suffering. If she has gone through that, I often thought, then what right do I have to complain about my situation? Why am I even here? I would sometimes become convinced that I didn’t deserve the treatment I was receiving because I was not nearly as “sick” as the other patients. I had it “easy” in comparison.
This is an extreme example, but I find that I do this regularly on a much smaller scale. If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, but a coworker got almost no sleep, I feel that I have no right to be tired. Instead, I swallow my exhaustion and try my best to push through.
I know it makes no sense, and yet I fall into the same traps over and over again. And it’s frustrating.
I mean, when did it become impossible to feel any pain if someone else’s pain is “worse?” Why are we conditioned to disregard perspective or relativity when thinking of ourselves compared to others? We are individuals with different life experiences; it makes no sense that we then compare pain or suffering or even joy from the same standard baseline.
I’m here to tell you that, regardless of what others had lived through, your experiences, your pain, even your joy, are all valid. To remind you that you are allowed to feel, regardless of others’ circumstance. You should never be made to feel inferior because another being seems to have it “harder.” I know that it is difficult to keep perspective, especially when it comes to mental struggles. But you wouldn’t ignore a cut on your finger just because someone else lost his hand. Treat mental health the same way. Just because it is internal does not make it any less real or less painful.
I know that I am privileged in many ways, and I do not pretend that I am not. But within that context, I can still acknowledge my pain or suffering or even joy as legitimate. And you can too. I’m not saying you should wallow, but I am saying this: next time you start to question yourself, doubt your feelings, or feel inferior compared to someone else’s accomplishments or suffering, remember this: you are a unique individual with valid feelings, and no one can take that away from you.
Kristy Cloetingh is a Philadelphia native who is currently trying to figure out her place in the world. Her passions include reading, singing, dancing, nature, yoga, chicken fingers, and puppies. An anorexia survivor and mental health warrior, Kristy has made it her life’s mission to remind every single person that their bodies and minds are worthy of unconditional love and respect, regardless of size, shape, or whatever “normal” is.