One time, I was meeting with a friend who was dealing with a series of misfortunes. We talked about her a while and how I could help. Then she asked about me. “I feel bad talking about my silly problems considering what you are going through,” I said. Her answer was one of the most selfless and empathetic comments I’ve ever heard. “I don’t think of it that way,” she said. “It’s not a competition. Your problems are as real to you as mine are to me.”
But you’ve noticed, I’m sure, that not everyone is as generous with their sympathy and understanding. Let’s say, for example, that you’re an artist excited about two promising new projects, but you fear that working on both is splitting your focus. “Oh, you poor thing,” your friend says. “At least you have two projects.” Or say you are an entrepreneur whose business is finally taking off, but the workload has left you feeling exhausted. “Yeah, but what really matters is how well you’re doing,” your friend says, and you can’t really argue.
I know our culture today presses us to always look on the bright side, and it’s good advice in general, but comments like, “Sounds like a good problem to have,” can feel so dismissive at times. A problem is a problem, no matter how good. For artists especially, support is sometimes hard to come by. We’re told, “Well, you chose to be an artist” or “Yeah, but you get to do what you love all day” or “I wish I had your problems.” If we complain too much, people will actually say, “Well, maybe you need to look for a real job.” So we tend to keep our troubles to ourselves or to joke about them, as if they don’t matter. But they do.
I think we’d all be better off if we sometimes set the positive platitudes aside and remembered that sometimes people just need to vent and sometimes they need some actual advice and sometimes they just need a pat on the back. But mostly, we just need to be heard.