“Smile! There are people in worse pain than you.”
Would you say that to your loved one suffering from diabetes, fibromyalgia, or chemo treatments for their cancer? Would you say that to a friend who was crying out in pain after breaking their leg? Or to someone who is recovering from a devastating car accident?
No, you wouldn’t. Why? Because this phrase doesn’t lessen their pain. This concept—that there are select people in the world who are in so much pain that they carry the title of being in “true pain,” while everybody else has to bite their tongue and wince through their own—is completely flawed. It’s as if there’s this collective amount of pain everyone is allowed to experience, and it’s already being used up by others—others whom are never named, who are just assumed to always be there—who are experiencing true pain.
In other words, that phrase completely negates the fact that pain is relative.
My best friend lived in a big, beautiful house. He had a wonderful family and a whole life ahead of him. It would be easy to tell him that “others have it worse” because on the outside, sure, they did. But no one could see the wounds within, the wounds that were too deep, too painful.
He took his life three years ago when he was just 21 years old.
“Others have it worse” is a ridiculous and heartless thing to say to someone in physical pain. Yet, for some reason, people think it’s OK—helpful, even—to say it to someone who is depressed or suffering from a mental illness. This phrase rolls off the tongue, a “remedy” that makes the speaker feel like they’re helping.
But when they cannot see the wounds, they may think they’re bandaging them. In reality, they’re just rubbing salt in them.
The stigma surrounding mental health boils down to one thing: that if pain can’t be measured or seen, it doesn’t exist. People believe that illnesses that cannot be detected with medical equipment can do no harm. But that one dangerous concept has a variety of stealthy disguises.
“Smile! Others have it worse.”
“Your life is great!”
“But you always seem so happy.”
“If you ignore it, it will go away.”
Sentences filled with salt for our wounds.
When someone is suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness, they are internally crying out in pain just as much as someone who broke their arm. The difference is that no one can see it but them, so they live in fear that no one will believe them.
And when you say these harmful phrases, you are proving their fear to be true.
We need to stop inflicting more pain on those who are already quietly bearing so much. Dispelling the stigma surrounding mental health seems overwhelming, but there are ways to do it. Commit to letting others speak about their suffering. Believe them when they say they’re hurting.
And, most importantly, recognize that pain has no limits or bounds.