“It’s the weirdest thing,” my colleague told me over a zoom meeting, “people start to tell you what’s hard and then they suddenly reverse course and start listing all the things they are grateful for.  Why are they doing that?”

Since this conversation, I’ve had similar ones with other colleagues and I’ve listened as my friends and clients follow the same pattern.  We are observing this new phenomenon where suddenly folks don’t feel comfortable acknowledging their struggles, sadness, or frustration because they have so much to be grateful for.  And they do.  But why do our blessings invalidate our more difficult feelings?  Are those less real or less important because today we are healthy?  I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say maybe sometimes.

During this time many of us have lost loved ones due to multiple circumstances, including COVID-19. The circle of life, which includes death, has continued despite the complete shut down of our society to this horrible disease.  Many of us have lost loved ones during this time and had to be separated from them during their illness and death due to the nature of the disease or due to the shutdown preventing family from being together.   Grief is a sacred process and a particularly difficult and lonely path right now.  The tears, the hugs and hands, the communal rituals of grief are all important in the mourning process and currently unavailable to us .

The list of losses isn’t limited to deaths.  Things are really, really bad for some of us.  For others, they are on the opposite end of the spectrum.  They are happily sheltered in place, working at home, and perfectly comfortable with their quaranteam – even if it’s a team of one. Maybe even especially if it’s a team of one!

We have lost our rituals, our carefree outings, our visits with family, our dinners with friends.  Even going to the grocery store has become an outing fraught with risk and anxiety (I speak for myself here!)  If you have children, things are even harder! Our kids are upset and missing their friends, their teachers, their extracurricular activities. They are bored, restless, and they are sick of zooming into their classes and trying to learn remotely.  If you happen to have a risk-taking teen, parenting is even more challenging!

Most of us fall somewhere in between devastation and elation.   We are, hopefully, healthy.  Our families, hopefully, are all ok.  We are financially secure and have meaningful ways of spending our time.  Does this mean we’ve suffered no losses or discomforts?   We all have to some degree. I can’t see how anyone can be living through our current pandemic and not have some really hard feelings about it. I think it’s safe to say that our recent SIP orders and the pandemic, which looks like it’s here to stay a while, have resulted in changes for us all.   Shifting usually involves a mixed bag of gains and losses and making accommodations that are more or less comfortable.

The other day, someone mentioned to me that we may all be in the same storm but we aren’t in the same boat.  I love that analogy.  We are in this storm together but some boats may be seaworthy, cozy, and secure while others may be filled with holes, their occupants frantically bailing water or, worse, unable to bail and, therefore, sinking.  One thing our current circumstances have done is given many a stark and clear look at the condition of others’ boats. If you’re navigating this storm fairly well, it can stop you cold from complaining – and it should – if you’re speaking to someone who isn’t doing as well as you are.  But that needn’t make you ashamed to have your struggles, too.

In our current society self-comparison runs rampant but in the past seeing someone else’s better fortune might make us feel “less than.” Now it seems as though seeing someone else’s worse fortune makes us feel guilty or embarrassed. So with all of these burdens and everyone suffering to some degree, what good comes from complaining about it? What good comes from feeling about it? And why should you allow yourself to have or express those feelings when so many have it worse?

The biggest reason I can think of sharing your troubles is that those are REAL.  Every person I’ve spoken to who  noticed that folks seem to be embarrassed or ashamed to mention their “negative” feelings or current frustrations is that there is something about that communication that feels off to them.  It feels, they report, as though acknowledging the difficulty of our current circumstances isn’t ok and that if we are healthy and secure, we have no business expressing our worries for our disappointed kids who won’t have 8th grade graduation or the fact that we miss our daily routine or loved ones who live far away.  It seems as though, if we are healthy and our family is healthy, we must sweep our struggles under a rug of gratitude, we have no right to complain because our boat is steady, so instead we deny our reality and use gratitude as a defense against our true feelings.  But I will challenge you on this.  The suffering co-exists with the gratitude.  Both are true.

While living in negativity isn’t something I endorse, I would like to suggest that being sincere about our feelings and/or venting some frustration in an appropriate way and to an appropriate listener has some merits.  What are those?   We are so limited in ways we can reach out and get support right now, I do believe that those honest and genuine acknowledgments of what we are struggling with can help us gain some perspective and feel held and heard.  Even better, doing so might give validation to someone else who is feeling the same way. We might admit our feelings to feel less alone in what we are managing.  While someone else might not have the answers, they might have sympathy for your position because they are going through the same thing or they may have empathy even though they are not.   Perhaps the other person in the conversation may have suggestions that could help make your life easier.  Or you may have some support to offer them.  Helping others is a quick pathway to feeling better ourselves.  But whatever else  you may get out of admitting the truth to what you’re dealing with, you gain real connection to others by doing so and that can help you feel less alone.

At the root of any healthy connection to other human beings is being honestly and truthfully ourselves.  I believe that what felt “off” to these colleagues, friends, and clients was that they were conversing with people who were afraid or embarrassed to be real because their reality looked so much better than that of so many others.   Just to be clear here, I’m talking about acknowledgment of what someone is feeling so that the conversation can move on from there in an honest way.  It doesn’t help anyone to dwell on what we can’t change. However, I do think sweeping it under the rug completely and not allowing yourself to be authentic has significant down sides.

So why was I so definitive at the beginning of this article about whether being honest with others is ok?  Because sometimes it is and other times, it’s not! There are two caveats to bonding through honest conversation about your troubles that I’ll suggest.  One is that some people have lost more than you have.  We all have limited bandwidth and if you’re considering bending the ear of a friend who just lost a loved one, I’d ask you to rethink your timing.  If you need an ear or steadying influence of a friend, it’s best to choose one who is relatively steady themselves at this moment.  The other thing I’d ask you to consider is whether you can provide mutual support or focus on other things in the conversation once you’ve expressed yourself.   Are you just calling to dump and run or to rant for a while?  Are you certain that the person you are talking to has the bandwidth to handle that in this moment?  Can you acknowledge your struggles and then move on in the conversation to discuss other things and/0r focus on the other person? Be mindful of what you need, what you can provide to others, and what others have the capacity to provide to you during any conversation.

Please reach out to me if you need more than the support of your friends.  I am currently seeing clients remotely and in a HIPAA compliant way.  I’d be happy to help you through the storm.


About Margaret Perlstein, MFT

Margaret has been a licensed therapist in private practice since 1992. In this high tech world we live in now, Margaret’s heart and focus are in the connections she creates with clients, face to face. She specializes in work with teenagers struggling with the stressors unique to their age group in these times, adults trying to turn the tables on debilitating anxiety or depression, couples striving to improve their communication and strengthen their marriage, or people grieving the loss of loved ones.

Working together with her clients, they search for the right path for their individual needs and ways to help them heal from their particular hurts. When it’s the right thing for them, they may bring in other important figures in their lives in order to enhance those relationships and develop a more robust support system outside the therapy room.

At all times, the goal is to guide clients toward a happier, more balanced way of living in the world and in their connections to others while also increasing resiliency to the bumps and bruises of life. Learn more or schedule an appointment with Margaret at www.margaretperlsteinmft.com