For the most part, people tend to experience the world fairly similarly.
We take it for granted that we see colours and taste food and smell scents in roughly the same way. We can agree upon descriptions of various experiences, in a way that makes it easy to convey information and to learn from each other.
But we can’t really guarantee that we all experience the world in the same way. There’s no real way of knowing that you and I see the same hue when we describe something as being ‘blue’.
But that doesn’t really matter. We can both happily live out our lives without caring what blue looks like to anyone else. It’s not an experience that is typically very personal or emotional. It’s not one that has a huge impact on anyone’s life.
It’s one of those things that’s easy to agree to disagree on.
Life would be a lot simpler if other experiences could be shrugged off with so little inconvenience.
It’s nice feeling like we understand other people. It’s nice feeling like someone understands you. But there are things that people go through that aren’t universally applicable, and it’s not wise to pretend they are.
If someone is mourning the death of a loved one and the closest you can relate to them is that time your cat went missing for the afternoon, don’t pretend that you know what they’re going through.
Your pain was never going to be as severe as theirs. Even if the absolutely worst had happened to your cat, you can always get another pet and, while it won’t replace the one you had before, it’ll do a better job of filling the gap than anyone attempting to replace a lost parent or sibling or friend. Worst of all, your story has a happy ending.
If someone is suffering from chronic depression, or experiences panic attacks, or has the kind of crippling anxiety that can ruin a life, you’re not doing them any favours to act like you understand what that feels like.
Mental health is still a relatively new field of medicine. Because of this, there is a lot of room for misunderstandings, which is not helped by the amount of ambiguous language used.
If someone is anxious, they have jitters about something, they’re feeling a bit excited and a bit nervous. It’s a feeling. It’s temporary. It passes, every time.
If someone suffers from anxiety, it can range from unexpected jitters to the kind of life-crushing fear that can stunt typical personal and social development.
It’s easy to assume that you know what other people are going through. It’s easy to believe that the saddest you’ve ever been is the saddest a person can ever get. It’s easy to think that other people’s problems only come from the same places as yours do. And once you fall into that trap, it’s easy to be insensitive when you’re trying to help.
Sometimes, people don’t need to know about a time when you suffered too. Sometimes, they don’t need you to try to compare what they’re going through to something you’ve experienced.
A lot of the time, it doesn’t matter if you fully understand their pain or not. You’re under no obligation to be able to relate to what they’re going through.
You don’t need it to be able to support someone.
You can be there for them and do your best to help them through their own issues by simply understanding that you don’t understand. Knowing that this is an experience you haven’t been through, but choosing to stick around help out wherever you can anyway.
Sometimes, just being there and holding their hand and letting them know you love them no matter what is all you need to do.
Author Bio – Kirstie Summers is journalist whose day job takes her to all the most interesting places and events in South London. She also freelances for a number of sites and publications, from gaming and literature reviews to creative fiction. She lives in London and spends as much of her free time as possible making the most of being in such a diverse city. She keeps one day a week to herself to swim, relax and keep the stress of the world at bay.