STRONGER TOGETHER: Behind the Smile—Life Lessons in Vulnerability and Empathy

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Last updated: 12/02/2024

“STRONGER TOGETHER” is a weekly column where Tanya explores key issues. This week Tanya discusses comparative suffering, and how continually comparing our life experiences to others can make it difficult to feel, acknowledge and effectively resolve our own emotions.

By IMPACT Community Services Managing Director Tanya O'Shea

Tanya O'Shea, IMPACT Community Services Managing Director

I have been dreading this day but knew that it would eventually come. Getting my front tooth knocked out playing basketball as a teenager has resulted in a range of procedures and restorations, the most recent being a crown that has lasted almost 14 years. A couple of weeks ago, the post supporting the crowned tooth cracked, and it started to wobble. With my tooth hanging on by a thread, the dentist confirmed that there was no quick fix. Treatment options were discussed, with an initial appointment scheduled for four weeks’ time, along with the parting words ‘tread gently with your tooth in the meantime’.

Unfortunately, ‘treading gently’ was unrealistic and by Saturday morning that tooth had fallen out. My immediate reaction was to retreat into lock down, mortified by my new look. Catastrophising, withdrawing from my normal routine, feeling fear and vulnerability slowly rising within me as I contemplated the next month without a front tooth.

By day two, a more ‘enlightened’ perspective had started to emerge and my heightened negativity about the situation had started to soften. “Losing a front tooth is nothing compared to what others are going through”, I kept dutifully reminding myself, finding an odd sense of comfort from diminishing my own feelings and emotions, and instead focusing on the ‘greater’ pain being experienced by others. Ranking our suffering, also known as comparative suffering, is a normal response for many of us when faced with a challenging or difficult situation. Sometimes, we even refrain from discussing certain topics or experiences because we fear reactions from others, who might think that we couldn’t possibly understand what they are going through.  

Continually comparing our life experiences to others can make it difficult to feel, acknowledge, and effectively resolve our own emotions and suffering. It can also detrimentally affect our mental health and wellbeing. Therefore, regardless of what other people are going through, it is important to gain perspective and validate our own experience. My reality when losing that tooth was that it left me feeling exposed, insecure, vulnerable, judged, inadequate and unprofessional. Those feelings were real for me, and resulted in a sense of struggle, therefore they should not be diminished or disregarded as unimportant.  

When preparing for this column, I contemplated the topic carefully, considering that it may come across as shallow or written by someone too privileged to understand the real challenges that people are facing today.  I do, however, hope that you see past the missing tooth and consider the bigger message. The reminder that we each have nuances that make us unique, incredibly special, and different. We each have experiences that generate a range of feelings, emotions and suffering that deserve our attention, validation, and curiosity.

The next time you find yourself comparing your situation to others, I encourage you to pause.

Take notice of the feelings and emotions that are coming up.

  • Is it something that has happened before, or is this a new experience?
  • Why is this happening now?
  • Was anyone else involved?

If you like to write, journal what happened and reflect on it later to see if it makes more sense. If you are a talker, find a trusted colleague, friend, or family member to debrief with. If you are finding it difficult to talk about, are deliberately suppressing feelings or trying to ignore whatever is going on, perhaps it is time to seek out some professional support. No one is immune to life’s challenges, and working with a therapist can help you to learn coping strategies, recognise unhelpful thinking patterns and identify different ways to manage your behaviour and response towards yourself and others.

Emotions and feelings will not simply go away because we believe that they are inappropriate or don’t rank high enough on the suffering scale. They are valid and deserve your attention; when we ignore them, they burrow deep down into our being. Researcher Brene Brown aptly reminds us that empathy is a vulnerable choice, one that allows us to connect not only with others but also with the depths of our own emotions. By choosing empathy, we can connect with ourselves and others. And that connection is the secret because it is where genuine healing and change can begin.

Please note: This website may contain references to, or feature images, videos, and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have passed away.

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