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Background

So the story is that I've been through stuff in my life, good and bad, a lot of bad. Sometimes I'm bitter and jealous of people who in my opinion have an easier life.

During a discussion earlier today a friend told me that no one has a perfect life and that everyone is messed up. To this, I responded that maybe it's so, but that 90% of the people I've met who claimed to be messed up were complaining about insignificant things (which I'd gladly trade my problems for theirs).

I gave an example of a person who's mourning a broken fingernail for days, so yes, I agree that since that person has never suffered worse that person will suffer as much as anyone in a harsher event.

But the question wasn't who would suffer more, I agree both would suffer equally. I would lose respect for this person, for just knowing that there could be harsher problems should put you in place to not suffer from such a minor event. She claimed that I'm wrong to dismiss that person's anguish.

Since I'm used to dealing with my own problems, instead of seeking attention/acknowledgment for other people, my usual reaction when somebody comes to me with his/her problem is to give advice on how to improve the situation, not be a shoulder to cry on. I'm afraid this might make me a bad friend when the other person might have wanted to cry it out and not actually improve their situation.

I know this is a fault of my own, not looking to other people enough for help, but if I do tackle a problem myself and can't reach a solution, I will consult for advice. Emphasis on consult, I'm not looking for someone to make me feel better, I'm looking for a way to improve the situation.

In short, this discussion raised a lot of inner turmoil in me. I'm worried that I'm wrong in wanting people to put their own issues in comparison with other's and not complain about minor issues (even though they may seem big to them). I'm worried that I'm wrong for feeling jealous of people that have had an easier life. I'm worried that I'm wrong in assuming the lives of these people are easier because they only complain about things that seem 'minor' to me.

I feel I don't have to be a shoulder to cry on for silly things such as a broken nail (exaggerated example) because this in no way compares to all the troubles I've had in life. But on the other hand, I would really like to be as much of a good friend to these people as possible. Somehow, I feel like I would be a happier person if I wasn't like this, but I am also sure I'd lose a critical part of myself. This part I believe helps me live my life to the fullest and not herd along my existence.

A non-exaggerated example would be a friend coming to me for relationship advice, telling me that he got into an argument with his significant other about where they would spend the holiday. This may seem to him like a big issue worth fighting over, but despite having many relationships, I've never had a serious multi-yeared one, and to me fighting over this (in a way that makes you stressed and needing the support) seems illogical. So sure, I can give good advice and help him resolve this conflict, but to me this issue seems trivial when you're already lucky to be in a long committed relationship and you're confident that the other person won't leave you that you can give yourself the luxury to be stressed over this.

Real life example

Another aspect of inability to feel sympathy would be the following: A friend of mine who is complaining about financial difficulty, who is saying that he has a hard life because he has to work two jobs on top of his school work. This friend chose to study a field which is known to not be promising in terms of employment, but he chose to study it because it's what excites him.

I respect that decision, and I wish I was liberated enough to pursue a career which I enjoy more than my current one. But I'm too rigid in the sense that I prefer a career which I enjoy a little less but has work in it, then to have those doubts and stress about whether or not I will be able to sustain myself. When this friend comes to me for advice, I want to say to him: "but you chose this path, you knew you wouldn't have work and would be forced to slave away at minimum pay work". But instead, I give advice and a shoulder and think to myself that he's an idiot. He's not an idiot for making this choice, that was his choice and I respect it, he's an idiot for crying about it. For not standing up to his choices and either admitting that he made mistakes and attempt to change them or accepting them and the hardship that follows.

I'll point out that I always offer good support and my handling of these situations is fine, I don't get called out for giving bad support, but I feel that I'm being fake, and I begin resenting the person who requested the support.

Question

If you can, please take into account all the inner turmoil and background described above. Working from the premise that I want to change if needed and be the best person possible by showing support to these friends with 'insignificant' problems:

How can I change my handling of these interactions to become a better person and be a better support towards others?

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    How else can I phrase it? "Do I have legitimation to feel this way"? "Should I improve.." it's all going to be opinion based :l – InterP Nov 1 '17 at 15:34
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    Working just now so quick comment: "To expect other people to put their own issues in comparison with other's and not complain about minor issues" This is a difficult mindset to get out of and takes a bit of empathy to push; just because things can be worse, does not mean they are not bad. Using the fingernail example; perhaps this person has confidence issues, or invested a significant amount of time in trimming/painting their nails, or use them for guitar playing. It's the loss of a significant investment to that person. Hitler was bad. This does not mean that Dresden was good. – Smeato Nov 1 '17 at 15:58
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    2/2 by the same logic, nobody should be able to complain about anything unless they grew up in poverty, had both parents murdered, were subject to genocide by the state and raped. You can always trump someone else's sad story with something worse and tell them they shouldn't complain. – Smeato Nov 1 '17 at 16:01
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    How do you know others have had "easier lives"? I complain about minor, quotidian problems to friends and acquaintances when I have in fact been through much worse. I would be cautious in dismissing others as "lucky" even if the so-called problems they are complaining about are insignificant. – dth02134 Nov 1 '17 at 16:01
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    Please consider how you could edit this to condense your question into just a handful of paragraphs. 5 or 6 would be ideal usually. – curiousdannii Nov 2 '17 at 11:53
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(Apologies for the length of this post. I wasn't trying to write a novel! But I hope it is worth the read.)

Sympathies

First off, what you are describing is perfectly normal. We generally have less sympathy, not more, when others encounter difficulties that we have experienced before. After all, we got through it, and we turned out fine. All the more so when we feel like the problems we have encountered are worse!

Now, if you want to tamp that down a little for the sake of your friends, I have a few thoughts for you:

Complaints

When we choose to go to others for support or sympathy, it's not necessarily for our deepest pains or biggest problems. Consider my very close friend, who I will call Erika. (Not at all her real name.)

When she had an issue with a guy that she liked, she talked about it quite a lot. She got worked up about some of the things he did, and some of the things that he wouldn't do, and many hours of fun discussions resulted. "Will he ____? Won't he? If he does, then you could ____, but maybe it's better to ____ anyway!"

Cut to a few years later in her life, and she is married (to a different fellow), and enters into a months-long pregnancy saga which is harrowing by any standard. She nearly died during the pregnancy, and she nearly died again during the delivery. The baby, who had to be medically induced almost three months early, nearly died during delivery, and then spent months in the neonatal ICU. There was plenty of trauma to go around for both the new mother and father, and there were open questions about whether the baby would ever be able to properly digest food, or would grow up to be able to learn to speak, tie shoes or read a sentence. Today, thankfully, more than a year on, both she and the child are fine.

During this episode, Erika didn't talk much about what was going on. She wasn't hiding it, exactly. I am a close friend, and she would explain the situation to me, but she wouldn't dwell there. And with many of her associates, she never mentioned these problems at all. It was too painful, too hard, too dark, and too unknown. These were problems that we could not reason through or fix, and while Erika needed a great deal of support during this time, that support came primarily from her doctors, from holding her husband's hands, and from setting her affairs in order.

If you knew her, but were not one of her very closest friends, you might reasonably come to the conclusion that she complains endlessly about silly things, and has never had real problems. But you would be dead wrong.

All of which brings me to point #1: the issues that people ask for help with are not necessarily the hardest problems they face. They usually ask about the things that are on their mind and that they can cope with. They may be seeking sympathy, attention, or even just something to talk about with you. But when they arrive at their darkest demons, they may simply keep walking.

Finding a Center

Point number 2: Both our general levels of happiness/satisfaction and our general levels of anxiety tend to be fairly stable over the long term. It can be drastically influenced by a traumatic circumstance (such as losing a leg) in the short term, but within a year, it trends back to the norm.

I would extend this theory. I don't have studies to back me up here, but the notion that only happiness and anxiety tend towards a personal norm doesn't make sense to me. It would make much more sense if many of our personal characteristics behave in this way.

If we take this idea and let it marinate a little, we arrive at a sort of strange idea: putting aside severe, extreme, or acute outside circumstances, then our personal histories won't influence our general demeanor a tremendous amount.

Now, let's combine that with the concept from the beginning (Sympathies). Let's posit two hypothetical people who have nearly identical high levels of general disaffectedness/anger, and a low level of happiness. (Just to be clear, these are fictional people.) Person A has endured quite a lot of trouble in his life. Possibly he had an abusive childhood, maybe he grew up in a war zone. Perhaps food was scarce, or violence was always simmering under the surface, or he was quite sickly. Person B, by contrast, has endured none of these things. He grew up moderately wealthy, many doors were simply opened to him without hard work, and he never had any serious health problems.

But we also said that both of these two individuals harbor similar amounts of disaffectedness and anger. How, then, will these two people explain these emotions to themselves?

Person A has a relatively easy task. He gets to look at his past, point to all of the crazy things that happened in his life, and he gets to externalize his pain. It's not his natural center and general demeanor, it's all of the bad things that happened to him!

But Person B has a comparatively harder task here. He can't really externalize his pain. Sure, he can call things stupid, worthless, soul-sucking, or the like, but he sees many of his peers doing well, and at the end of the day, anything that he can't externalize is left with an internalized explanation. Which also leaves him with the question, "what's wrong with me?"

So, we have our two approaches to negative emotions: internalize or externalize. We externalize when we can, internalize when we can't.

Now apply the same idea to anxiety, or to self-hatred, or to outrage... if some degree of these emotions is really fairly stable, then people with lesser problems are forced to externalize where they can, and internalize when they can't. So, maybe nothing serious is going on, but they're really anxious anyway. How can that be handled? Find the things in life that could conceivably induce anxiety, and use externalization to blow them up a little larger than life.

Some Practical Advice

When I encounter someone with a lot of misplaced anxiety, one good approach I've found is to help them regain their perspective. Zoom out and look at the scope of their whole life. When they are on their death bed, will this problem be what they think back on? Once their anxiety is back to appropriate levels, I can either offer practical advice, or I can change the topic or recommend a new activity.

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    the issues that people ask for help with are not necessarily the hardest problems they face Exactly. They need to see how you react to smaller issues in their life before they can start trusting you. – Sachin Nov 2 '17 at 10:35
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    Another point about the stuff they talk about not being the biggest issue: If they can clear their heads about the minor stuff, handling the MAJOR stuff gets so much easier! – Layna Nov 28 '17 at 11:56
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My reading of your question is that your issue is largely one of indulgent self-centeredness. You are comparing what you imagine your friends' problems to be to your own experiences and then deciding that their problems are unworthy of your support. It's as if you have decided that you will only support the people with the 10 worst lives, and since your friends don't make that cut they get nothing from you. This is not a great approach to friendship, or at least not a supportive one.

Additionally, your apparent assumption that your own life makes it into the category that deserves support leads me to believe that you are unlikely to assess the difficulty of your friends' lives accurately (you might be 100% correct, but I think it's safe to say that more people indulge their egos in this sort of thing than legitimately have "the worst" lives, even if their hardships are very real). Your own problems may well be irrelevant compared with those that others have suffered. Your analogy of the broken fingernail reinforces this impression for me-- it is vivid and clear, but ludicrously dismissive of anyone other than yourself.

As for advice on how to improve, I have one major suggestion: think of others more and yourself less. Your friends' problems are about your friends' own lives and not about you. That your experiences may have been worse, even substantially so, doesn't change that. If on one particular day you had a parent die in a car crash, and I had both my parents die in another car crash, would it be fair to say that your problem is insignificant just because my loss was "worse"? Would any tears you shed or misery you experienced be unjustified, unless they were on my own behalf?

A friend coming to you for support (and please note, telling a friend that they are getting too worked up over something unimportant can be a supportive response as well) isn't about which of you is most deserving of comfort, it's about who is looking for support right now and whether or not you might provide it. Immediately focusing on yourself is the opposite of what your friends are looking for, whether they just want someone listen to them vent or are looking for someone to help them with a practical approach to their issue.

The bottom line: your friends are looking for something common and expected in a friendship, but instead it seems that the only thing you're offering is your assessment of which of you has had a worse life. Focus on your friends and their issues, rather than yourself, and you might find that you can respond to their complaints pretty easily (even petty ones). Continue focusing on yourself alone and you will remain in a cycle of dismissive jealousy, and you won't have much of an argument about why anyone should feel any sympathy for you over it (after all, there are almost certainly worse problems that people have).

  • Just a heads-up: The question has been edited significantly since you answered, to make it less opinion based. You might want to review your answer to see if it still fits the question, to avoid attracting downvotes. – Tinkeringbell Nov 1 '17 at 16:58
  • @Tinkeringbell Thank you for the notice, my post has been changed. – Upper_Case Nov 1 '17 at 17:37
  • Thanks for the answer Upper, I agree with everything you said. "Continue focusing on yourself alone and you will remain in a cycle of dismissive jealousy,". Do you think that being more compassionate to other's problems leads to being less dismissively / jealous? – InterP Nov 2 '17 at 7:42
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    @InterP a lot of people have a hard life. They might not tell you before they trust you. If they learn you take their problems serious and listen activly without judging they might open up more. Then they will have deeper conversations and tell you their real problems. Maybe the person with the broken nail was once a nail biter and bullied for this issue. People will only reveal their stories to you if they know you listen and don't judge. – Korinna Nov 2 '17 at 8:48
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    @InterP It's hard to say whether or not trying to act compassionately, even if you don't feel it, will lead to real feelings of compassion down the line, but I think that it would. It's the comparison to your own life that seems to be the main issue, and so removing or mitigating that should improve the things that come after. At a minimum, making the effort to support friends is a more compassionate stance than your current one, and so are being more compassionate already just by trying. – Upper_Case Nov 2 '17 at 18:42
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Sometimes a listening ear is all someone really needs or expects. It lets them vent their frustration and trying to have someone understand your own problems can help put things in perspective even if the other party doesn't really respond or is unable to relate. (This is sometimes known in the programming industry as rubber duck debugging).

If people are coming to you for small issues, then it means they trust you not to make fun of them over it. You have become their therapist just without the bill or stigma or the egg timer counting down the end of the time slot.

Don't forget that many people will be very unlikely to talk about their bigger and/or deeper issues that may be considered taboo but will instead vent using smaller issues.

  • Just a heads-up: The question has been edited significantly since you answered, to make it less opinion based. You might want to review your answer to see if it still fits the question, to avoid attracting downvotes. – Tinkeringbell Nov 1 '17 at 16:57
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I'll point out that I always offer good support and my handling of these situations is fine, I don't get called out for giving bad support...

You stated yourself that you do offer good support to your friends and nobody has yet complained, so this is more of a problem you have with yourself. It might even be a problem of cognitive dissonance and a lack of not necessarily empathy or sympathy but more of a lack of understanding how minor discomforts or insignificant problems for you could be more severe for others (because like you've said, they have not experienced the hardships you have and thus in a way, don't share your Weltanschauung.

but I feel that I'm being fake, and I begin resenting the person who requested the support.

If you were in your friend's shoes and you wanted support from someone who hasn't experienced your hardships, and that person did give you a shoulder to cry on, or listened to you, or nodded they understood (even if in reality they weren't able to), would you think they were being fake?

In that sense, we are all fake when providing support about something we haven't experienced ourselves. The solution is not to pretend you understand what the other person is going through-unless the same thing happened to you and even then you might just have a different coping mechanism-but to just listen. A lot of times people do just want a shoulder to cry on and nothing more. Some reading on active listening might be useful if you feel you need to improve on that skill.

From what I read, it seems that your experiences have just made you more cynical. You just look at things from a different perspective. Perhaps you are better at applying logic when offering support or helping a friend fix a problem than emotional support.

Now, depending on your relationship with these friends, what's wrong with being the friend who is more cynical and logical? If your friends know you and what you have gone through, shouldn't they also expect your own, non-standard reactions to their problems without misunderstanding you?

Some thoughts about your examples:

This friend chose to study a field which is known to not be promising in terms of employment, but he chose to study it because it's what excites him. I want to say to him: "but you chose this path, you knew you wouldn't have work and would be forced to slave away at minimum pay work"

To know something in theory, doesn't necessarily mean to realize it in practice. We learn a lot from experience. Your friend now came to realize that his choice has negative consequences, because he is experiencing them now.

As long as you aren't accusatory or condescending, you could be honest. However, keep in mind that sometimes people just complain to complain and you telling him what you wrote won't do much. The person already knows. Now, if he kept complaining about it then you have every right to voice the concerns you shared with us, firmly but politely. Always sugar-coating doesn't make you a good friend.

a friend coming to me for relationship advice, telling me that he got into an argument with his significant other about where they would spend the holiday. This may seem to him like a big issue worth fighting over, but despite having many relationships, I've never had a serious multi-yeared one, and to me fighting over this (in a way that makes you stressed and needing the support) seems illogical.

You see? Because you have never had the experience your friend has (being in a long-term relationship or married for a long time), you can't understand how serious or important to him fighting over where to spend the holiday is. Also, a lot of times, arguing for things that might seem illogical may be a cover for other more serious or logical ones hiding underneath (been there, done that myself).

So think about what becoming a "better" person and a better support really means to you. Does it mean rejecting how you think? Does it mean get better at active listening? Or does it mean being honest, but polite and know how and when to do so?

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I struggle with similar reactions sometimes, people tend to get really worked up over really trivial things sometimes and some things I have little sympathy for.

In the US the phrase "first world problems" is sometimes used to remind people that their lives are awfully comfortable and their complaints about the quality of the coffee are kind of trivial and they should probably try to put things in perspective.

With that said, it's better to be gentle with people regardless of how trivial their problems are. Someone else always has it worse, so making the argument that people shouldn't complain because of that, leaves everyone silent.

People need to talk about stuff. We're social animals. Venting about our frustrations and problems is a normal, healthy thing to do. Granted some people vent a little too much and that can become, or be a symptom of, an unhealthy focus on the unpleasantness of life, but most people are pretty balanced about things.

When people vent too much, it's worth reminding them to put things in perspective, but try to be gentle about it.

  • Just a heads-up: The question has been edited significantly since you answered, to make it less opinion based. You might want to review your answer to see if it still fits the question, to avoid attracting downvotes. – Tinkeringbell Nov 1 '17 at 16:57

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