Lately I’ve noticed a string of articles with titles like, “What Not to Say to a Woman Who is Expecting,” or “10 Things Not to Say to Someone with Cancer.” There’s many, many more with the same idea, all published in popular online outlets in the last few months.
Both articles left me considering the expectations I have for those around me when we discuss my headache (which, honestly, I don’t do a lot). What I’ve realized is that I don’t have expectations. No, that isn’t entirely true. It’s that I don’t want to hold any. I don’t want my friends to feel as though they need to study Huffington Post to learn how to appropriately have a conversation with me, lest they will offend me.
Here’s the thing: other people aren’t responsible for managing my sensitivities*.
Let’s take the Huffington Post article on migraines, for example. There’s no denying that saying to someone “Your pain is all in your head” or “You don’t look sick” are shitty statements.
But what about the first thing on the list: “I have headaches too.” People have said this to me many times, and what I assume is that they are trying to make a connection, trying to relate with my struggle. And while maybe they don’t know how painful my headache can be or how hard it is to have a headache now for 12+ years, I have to ask myself if it really matters. Is it really that important to distinguish two different levels of suffering?
If someone says something comparable to “I have headaches too,” and in interpreting that statement as minimizing my pain I feel the need to argue that the other person couldn’t possibly understand, I have to ask myself why I feel I need them to. Perhaps I need to give myself the level of compassion I am seeking from that other person. Or perhaps I need to find more people in my life who also hold that compassion for me. In the past, I’ve struggled in both areas. But over the years, I’ve found that when both are in place in my life (compassion from myself and from loved ones), it is far easier to avoid a “my-life-is-harder-than-yours” sentiment.
The “my-life-is-harder-than-yours” mindset is precisely the underlying basis of these types of articles. “My life is so challenging, I need you to read this article to be able to speak to me.” Or, “My life is so challenging, there are a whole list of things I demand you not say to me.”
There’s a debate on whether or not there is a hierarchy of suffering. In other words, if people’s pain can be ranked against each other’s in some sort of pecking order. There’s much to be said on this topic, but I argue, no, there can’t be a hierarchy because we all have certain conditions that bring us challenges. Some of us have kids. Some of us don’t. Some have medical conditions. Some have psychiatric. Some have difficult relationships…the list goes on and on. Without walking through those specific issues, it is impossible to understand the nuances and difficulties each one brings.
And even if it was at all legitimate to stack our pain against each other’s, we would have to face the reality there is always – always – someone who is facing more adversity than we are.
What I believe is that intentions can be felt. If I’m having a conversation with someone about my headaches, I believe I can tell the difference between an unhelpful comment that is made out of innocent ignorance, or one out of resentment, jealousy, or one-upmanship. Those intentions are what matters. And that’s where I hold my expectations. I seek out meaningful relationships only with people who make an attempt to connect with me on an empathetic level. When speaking to me from that heartfelt place, you don’t need a Today Show guide.
In the spirit of those caring relationships, if someone says something that touches on one of my sensitivities*, I try to tell them so. Not that I always do, or that it is easy, but I have found (the hard way) it is the best way of making my feelings known without requiring the other person to maintain constant hypervigilance for fear of offending me.
*Postscript: I realize the word “sensitive” as used twice above may not be the best here. Because it is so commonly paired with “overly,” there is a connotation that it is unjust or unfounded sensitivity. That isn’t what I mean to say here at all. What I do mean to say is that I (like everyone else) have a particular, nuanced way of interpreting the world based on my life experiences.