“No one’s problem is more or less important than anyone else’s.”
“Everyone is dealing with something.”
“We all have our own struggles, and they’re all just as valid.”
I have written before about common phrases in the special needs world and how unhelpful they can be. Today I have more examples—but of a different sort. The phrases listed above are ones I come across every so often in articles about special needs parenting or during conversations about my daughter. I groan inwardly every single time. Why? Because there are so many instances when these phrases simply don’t hold true.
I was reminded of their existence recently when listening to a podcast created by a special needs parent. The woman began one of her episodes by pointing out that all parents of disabled children struggle in one way or another. Then she said it. No one’s struggles are more or less important than anyone else’s. She both meant well and had a point—to a certain extent. But I shut off the podcast anyway.
I did this out of frustration. She made it sound like it was such a simple thing to embrace everyone’s difficulties equally. If this was such a given, I wondered, then why was I failing so miserably at it? Why did I feel so resentful when other people complained about things that felt like minor issues to me? And why was I too embarrassed to gripe around those whose situations seemed worse than my own?
It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Because comparisons exist for a reason.
Our brains want to categorize things. They’re constantly measuring our lives, problems, and accomplishments in relation to those of the people around us. Often, we don’t even want to do it. It just happens. It’s not healthy, but it seems to be how most of us are wired.
When it comes to the hierarchy of human pain, there are certainly many gray areas. If someone’s child is severely disabled, how does that stack up against a parent dealing with a teenager addicted to drugs? What about someone fighting cancer versus a widow grieving her dead spouse? Of course, it’s often extremely unhealthy to try to gauge where people land on this scale. It can also be downright difficult.
But let’s be honest. Sometimes it’s not hard at all.
Often, it’s easy to tell when someone is dealing with something truly heartbreaking and when they are facing one of life’s smaller, more mundane difficulties. Most of us have a sense of this on a gut-level. My own family is a good example. I have a child who can’t use her hands, walk on her own, talk, swallow correctly, or breathe normally. JJ has a limited life expectancy and will likely never be able to live on her own, hold down a job, go to college, get married, or have children. At least for now, the parenting issues I face outweigh those of my friends with healthy, neurotypical children. JJ’s problems are more serious and troubling than toddlers who throw tantrums, fight with their siblings, or refuse to go to bed on time.
The same thing holds true in reverse. I might have a child with Rett Syndrome, but I also have a loving marriage, financial security, health insurance, access to a specialty medical clinic, and the luxury of quitting my job to care for my daughter. My family has every resource they need in order to fight our daughter’s devastating disease. The more I connect with other families in the Rett community, the more I come across people who aren’t as fortunate. There are families without health insurance or stable housing. People who can’t afford to replace their child’s communication device when it breaks. Single parents who have been abandoned by their partners.
Would I complain about any of my parenting struggles to them? Probably not.
It might not be popular to think this way, but I believe that when we erase the hierarchy of human pain, it can cause great harm. First and foremost, is the question of consideration. When we pretend that everyone’s problems are equal, we disrespect the people who lack the resources they need. This is why I wouldn’t complain about how many medical appointments I have to juggle to someone without insurance. I also wouldn’t talk about how difficult it is to program JJ’s communication device to someone who cannot afford one. It’s always important to recognize and respect your audience.
When we claim that all problems are of equal importance, we also create a fair amount of resentment. Try as I might, I often can’t stop the negative feelings that bubble up when people with neurotypical children complain about their parenting struggles to me. Sometimes—mostly on JJ’s healthier and happier days—I don’t mind if friends agonize over their children’s tantrums, sleep issues, or sibling rivalries. But if I know I’ll be going home to a child wracked by seizures or exhausted by nightly pain, I dread these types of interactions. At best, they increase my sense of isolation. At worst, I question whether or not I want to continue spending time with people who make me feel so resentful. Conversations like these can poison otherwise healthy relationships.
For the most part, these types of conversations anger me because I would do anything to have problems of the same magnitude. If JJ called me names during a tantrum, it would mean she could talk. If she fought over toys with her sister, it would mean her hands worked well enough to manipulate those toys. I know the pain my friends are experiencing in that moment is real. But I can’t be the one to help them process or manage that pain. All I want is to know that people who have the gift of a healthy child aren’t taking that gift for granted.
Is it fair to feel like this? Of course not.
Is it human? You bet it is.
And this brings us to yet another harmful outcome stemming from the myth of equality. It can cause an enormous amount of guilt. No sooner do I become angry at the people around me for complaining about minor issues or equating their own parenting struggles with my own, than the remorse sets in. According to the common wisdom, I should be able to listen to others narrate their difficulties with an open mind and a kind heart. Then I should offer them my sympathy and advice.
Sometimes, though, I just can’t.
It's especially difficult to listen kindly on the days when JJ is suffering. I don’t want to hear about my friend’s rambunctious son tearing around the house when my own daughter is spending her days lying listlessly on the couch, heavily sedated by anti-seizure medications. I have no desire to offer advice to someone whose child is a picky eater when my husband and I are struggling to learn how to use a feeding tube.
I realize how unreasonable it is to expect people to avoid discussing their own problems. Talking about our lives in a real, honest way is how we connect with each other, after all. But while it’s certainly tricky to relate to someone with a different magnitude of problem, it’s not impossible. There are ways to do it that preserve relationships and minimize resentment.
As always, it’s important to think before we speak. I try to consider life from my conversation partner’s perspective before I broach the topic of my own struggles. If this person’s problems in a certain area are clearly more serious than mine, I’ll usually find someone else to complain to.
An open acknowledgment of how people’s situations stack up against one another can also help greatly. I have several friends who still discuss their parenting challenges with me, but start out our conversations with a caveat. “I know this isn’t like having a child with Rett Syndrome, but…” And that’s usually all it takes. This small nod to my family’s situation makes me feel respected, seen, and valued. My resentment melts away.
All of this is a lot to ask, I know. But it’s important that we try. Those of us facing gut-wrenching twists in our lives are not at our best. We’re often more prone to resentment, guilt, and fear than we've ever been. Paradoxically, we’re also the most in need of compassion and consideration. So, the next time you find yourself in conversation with someone who is truly struggling, don’t forget who you’re talking to. You’re sharing your thoughts with a person who is extremely vulnerable, raw, messy, and imperfect.
In other words…someone who has never been more human.
Do you agree with the common wisdom about comparisons? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below.