If a sentence begins, “Well, at least YOU…” you can bet your sweet bippy that it is a comparison that aims to show the speaker in greater need or pain than the listener.
“Well, at least YOU know some of the people at the party. I don’t know anyone.”
“Well, at least YOU have a job to complain about. I can’t even find work.”
“Well, at least YOU have a kid who tries to get good grades. I can’t get mine to care.”
You get the idea. There are some people who always seem to need to rank higher on any “scale” of life being discussed. Kristen Wiig’s Penelope character from Saturday Night Live is the queen of “one-upping”:
Most of us are not Penelopes. (Thank God!) But I think it’s safe to say that most of us have been guilty of occasionally one-upping someone—even another’s pain. For whatever reason, we sometimes feel the need to have our own situation acknowledged as primary. Maybe it’s rooted in the frustration of feeling unheard, but…no matter what…it’s annoying. And it’s super annoying when it’s about another’s pain or loss.
Within the year after my dad died from his battle with cancer, another family suffered the loss of a husband and father in a car accident. My mother was friends with the new widow, and she offered her comfort in her time of loss. I will never forget the woman’s response. She said, “Well at least you were able to say goodbye. You knew your husband was dying, and you had that time with him. I didn’t. Mine was gone in an instant.”
You know in cartoons how sometimes a character gets hit or mowed down and then they get up and try to briskly shake off the effects? That was my mom. She eventually replied, “Yes, I did have that time to say goodbye. But I also saw him suffering for months, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
I remember sitting there and wondering what the point was of this “grief contest” that the widow created. Both women lost their spouses. One got to say goodbye. The other didn’t. One’s husband suffered at length. The other’s husband was gone in a flash. Was there a prize for greater loss?
It was unfortunate that what should have been two people coming together in pain that they each understood all too well instead became a “Oh, yeah? Well, my grief is greater” conversation.
Clearly the widow was hurting and trying to make sense of things, so we have to put the conversation in that context and give her grace, but…it really stuck with me.
Clinical psychologist Susan Silk created the “ring theory” to illustrate a simple way for people to know how to avoid saying the wrong thing to someone going through a crisis. It’s completely common sense, but we are not always led by common sense now, are we?
In a nutshell, comfort moves toward the center (the person in crisis or pain), and any kind of comparing or complaining can only be shared with someone in a larger ring.
This theory allows for the widow of my story to say whatever because of the loss she is suffering, but since my mom was in the same boat, they were pretty much together in the same ring.
It’s not rocket science to understand that you shouldn’t tell someone who just lost a job that your boss is a real d-bag, but…sometimes we do.
Or if someone is sharing with you that they feel a certain way to cut in and say, “oh, yeah, me too! For me it’s like…” but…sometimes we do.
Or if someone is going through something as horrific as the loss of a child to say that we understand that loss because we’ve lost a parent…but…sometimes we do.
We are so very human, but we need to fight the urge to chime in and one-up one another.
We all know our own struggles best. After all, we are the ones going through them. It makes sense that we would feel most intensely about them. But that’s how it is for everyone.
Very often the ideal response to someone going through a challenge or crisis is so very, very simple: Listen. Listen so well that they feel heard.
It is so simple that sometimes it feels like it’s not enough. I need to do something. I need to help them or give them advice. But it is often perfectly enough. And if it’s not, the person will probably let you know.
Listen so that they know what they are saying matters to you. That they matter to you. It’s pretty impossible to say the wrong thing listening. The whole being quiet thing really reduces your chances of doing so.
Listening is a practice that is ongoing with every person and every situation. It’s never the same twice. But it always matters.
Want to rank high at something? Be an amazing listener.
At least that’s what I heard.