Joyce Fegan: Recognising painful feelings is not an act of self-pity

No one's pain is unique, it might be different but it is not unique. In this lockdown, we can listen and be listened to. That can be our temporary cure.
Joyce Fegan: Recognising painful feelings is not an act of self-pity

We can acknowledge the challenging struggle of a friend or sibling, without minimising their challenge compared with our own.

When Ireland and the world was in total lockdown last year, I tried to console a friend who was at home alone with two young children all day long.

"At least it's not like the Second World War", I said.

"Yeah," she countered, "people could at least meet during the war". Instead of jumping into fix and accidentally dismissing how she was feeling, I should have just listened and empathised. It's one of my lessons of the pandemic.

Months and months of restrictions later, and in the midst of a third lockdown which is now likely to run into March, that thing about being able to "at least" meet a friend has taken on far greater meaning.

This week when President Michael D Higgins wrote to President Joe Biden, congratulating him on his inauguration, he quoted the following Irish saying: "Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine".

President Higgins told the 46th President of America that it meant "we live in each other's shadow and in each other's shelter".

While the Irish president was referring to our global interdependence, I was picturing it in a far more local sense. 

When times are hard, we rely on each other. We rely on the shelter of our loved ones. 

Even when times are not as hard as they are now, we rely on the shelter of our loved ones — to pick up a prescription for a sick relative, carry out a school run for a friend stuck in work, drop meals over to a new parent.

Now, at a time when we need each other's shelter most, we cannot have it, or give it. And there is no one that this pandemic or these restrictions are easy for. That's the lesson.

There are varying degrees of hard, but all are relative.

There is the frontline healthcare worker, who has been exposed to the virus week in and week out since last February, who works 24-hour shifts because her colleagues are out sick with Covid-19. She wears PPE gear all day long and her face is double masked. She still has to do her cooking and cleaning. That's hard.

There is the frontline worker who stacks shelves at night and who now has to homeschool her three children during the day, while her husband works from home. She sleeps one hour over the course of 24. That's hard.

There are new mums, whose partners are gone to work all day, and they're home alone with a baby for 12 hours straight. There's no one to hold the baby so they can shower and there is no one who can reassure them that it gets a little bit easier in time. That's hard.

There is the person in their seventies, who has worked hard their whole lives to rear their children and pay their bills. They were used to getting out to bridge or golf or to meet their friend for a coffee every Tuesday morning. 

Now they're living in isolation, with no homeschooling or work to distract them from the shapelessness and loneliness of their day. That's hard.

There is the single homeworker who sees nobody from one end of the week to the next, save for on Zoom. That's hard.

There are young people who hoped to make the under-18s team and win a championship, but that crucial year has now passed, never to return. There are also young people whose Leaving Certs were cancelled and who have yet to meet their college classmates in real life.

There are people in their nineties, who know that they have very little time left, and one year of that has just been spent like this.

Then there are those who are in intolerable, inhumane situations; people living with abusive partners day in, day out; people living in emergency accommodation with strangers, and people stuck in Direct Provision wondering endlessly when their asylum application will be processed.

Our need to take shelter in one another has never been so acute, and yet we can't. So what do we do? There have been many reports about the effect of the pandemic on our mental wellbeing. 

In Canada, 40% of people are struggling with their mental health and alcohol or addiction issues as a result of Covid-19.

"In the UK, mental distress was higher than expected when accounting for previous trends, particularly in people aged 18–34 years, women, and people living with young children," read a report in the The Lancetmedical journal this week.

What we can do is we can listen, not compete with our struggles, but share them.

There are two polar opposite tendencies I see among people these days. There are those who seek to minimise and invalidate their own pain, by saying: 'Well at least I'm not living with an abusive partner,' or 'at least I only have one child to homeschool.' They dismiss their own situation.

Then there are those who dismiss other people's situations. When accidentally sharing your struggle with them, you might hear back: 'Well at least you don't have to take care of your mother as well as homeschooling your eight children.' Sociologist Brene Brown calls that sympathy seeking — their pain is unique and no one will ever have it worse.

No one's pain is unique, it might be different but it is not unique.

We can go down the route of the oppression Olympics, seeing who has the worst and out-competing them, or we can go down the road of self invalidation. Neither actually helps.

Another option is to live in each other's shelter. We can listen and be listened to.

We can acknowledge the challenging struggle of a friend or sibling, without minimising our own current challenge. We can acknowledge the challenging struggle of a friend or sibling, without minimising their challenge compared with our own.

Acknowledging how you, or someone else, is feeling is wholly different to pitying or self-pity. 

Feeling your feelings is actually the responsible and healthy thing to do, because you can process and move on, and not turn to destructive behaviours.

In 2019, the CEO of Mental Health Ireland, Martin Rogan, was asked what one big thing could be done to improve mental health in Ireland. “If a stingy leprechaun only gave me one wish, I would wish for a society where human connection is fostered,” he said.

Connection, which doesn't need to be physical, but can happen through honest disclosure and empathic listening, can be our shelter during this time.

In the absence of a cure, we can at least offer witness to each other's pain. The witnessing can be our temporary cure.

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