I have a client, a woman in her early 30's, who has what most people would consider a good life. She's happily married, has a successful career and a child whom she adores. She doesn't need to worry about money or her health or her family's happiness. It's all pretty much in place. Unfortunately she becomes extremely overwhelmed when anything more than simple demands are put on her plate. If she's held up at work she can't cope. When her kid gets a bad grade on a test she can't handle it. And when she burns the family's supper she's an anxious mess. Because life is full of curveballs like these she's unhappy more days than not.
Immediately before my appointment with her I see a middle-aged man who has only one leg. He has a lot of complex medical problems, most of which I don't fully understand, and needs help managing his pain and emotions beyond what the physicians and physical therapists can do for him. He's poor and doesn't have a lot of friends. He wants to have children someday but he has difficulty meeting women who want to go out with him. The reality is that a lot of people are put-off by his handicap. Like the female client he is unhappy more days than not, although he always reminds himself that "things could always be worse." That short mantra somehow manages to curb the sharp depression he feels.
When the man opens the door of my office at the end of each session the woman is always in the waiting room. Each week she looks at him using his crutches to hobble out of the office and into the elevator. Each week she looks down at her Prada bag, lets out a sigh of pity for the man, and gets up to come into my office. You can almost see the wheels spinning in her head as she comes in. She's trying to put her problems into perspective. The man is this woman's personal Unplanned Therapist.
For a very long time the woman began almost every session by saying that she shouldn't feel as bad as she does, that the man is so much worse off, that she needs to appreciate what she has. "I need to keep it in perspective," she always said. I often told her that her pain is her own and that it shouldn't be invalidated or brushed off simply because her life is objectively better than someone else's.
But her point is valid. I touched on this regarding financial distress but it is applicable to health and relationships and pretty much everything under the sun as well. If you can't place your issues into some sort of context you'll invariably be miserable because your problems will speak to you as if they are the most devastating things you will ever encounter. Striking that balance between validating your own individual distress along with a push to shift your perspective to a more objective one is a key to happiness. That is our responsibility, whether we are the woman, the man with one leg, someone in between or a person who is much better or much worse off.
For a long time the woman was unable to carry the lesson from the legless man until she saw him the following week. However, slowly she is starting to catch herself feeling overwhelmed. She remembers the man and says "Keep it in perspective. Keep it in perspective." That is her mantra and it seems to be taking the sting out of the tough emotions. She's got a ways to go but I suspect she'll eventually get there.
Along these lines you might want to check out HotWheelz. Here is a young man with hard core difficulties yet is striving to keep those problems in context through his writing. I think he's doing a very good job of it. Do yourself a favor and give him a look, and if something he says helps you to see your own problems in a different light, shoot him an email and let him know.