I’ve spent a lifetime talking about my experiences using the words everyone else uses. Being a mom is hard, frustrating, exhausting. I’m overwhelmed, I can’t get things done. I get mad at my toddler and feel so awful. I struggle to stay present. Everyone I would talk to would empathize. These are universal struggles, aren’t they? And then years earlier, same thing. Being a pubescent tween is hard, frustrating, exhausting. I wish I were prettier, thinner. I want to fit in. I feel like everybody else is cooler or more confident than I am. Everybody feels that way, right?
But here’s the thing, words fail us. Sometimes, hidden in the conversations about normal things with normal people, there are people whose brains are different. Whose experience of life is different. It just is. It doesn’t mean we are worse, or better. It just means we are different. Sometimes, we’re using the same words to describe totally different things.
Being a mom is hard, and overwhelming, and exhausting. But normal moms can feel the good parts, not just the bad parts. If you are only intellectually experiencing the good, and not emotionally feeling it, then something is unbalanced. Everyone feels overwhelmed, nobody can get everything done. But if “everything” feels like a mountain crushing you slowly under its weight, maybe something is wrong. If it feels so hard that you daily wish it could all be over and then remind yourself that you want to be with your family, you don’t want to miss this, then your hard is not the same as other people’s hard. If struggling to stay present means you are detached to the point where you frequently feel like you’re outside of yourself, watching yourself, then you’re talking about something different than everyone else. And it doesn’t have to be normal. It doesn’t have to be your life.
That’s the thing, we’re so obsessed with normalizing the struggle that we can inadvertently make it difficult for people to recognize legitimate problems that need to be addressed. I spent five years thinking how I felt was normal, because everybody’s life is hard. Everybody’s life is hard! I completely validate that, and celebrate the community that can be formed around that solidarity. But I was really hurting, and for much longer than I needed to be. And I missed it because for my entire life, I’ve had this anxiety that makes me either shove down negative feelings or, alternatively, when I can’t shove down or escape them, it makes me freak out far beyond what is warranted by something normal, like being angry with a toddler. And my brain started working this way before I was old enough to have memories. So I’ve grown up using the same words to describe something totally different, and never uncovered it until the bottom fell out.
It is a gift to offer empathy to someone, to let them know they’re not alone. But what we take for empathy sometimes puts assumptions onto what people are feeling or experiencing that do them a disservice. When someone is upset beyond the scope of the words she is using, pay attention. Words are important and empathy is important, but listening is more important. You may be able to hear beyond the words she’s using and help uncover something that needs to be addressed. I’ve had so many people tell me I’m a great mom, that x, y, or z is “totally normal!” But the best gift I was ever given was when a friend told me, “Yes, life is hard, Rebekah. But I just don’t think it has to be this hard for you.”
This post is part one of two. Part one focuses on using the same words to talk about different things as it relates to mental health. Part two will focus on the way this happens in christian settings, often inadvertently hurting or alienating people who have had traumatic past experiences.