When you have a chronic illness, it’s very easy complain, because you have a lot to complain about. Sometimes it’s helpful to vent, to get rid of frustration, to share the burden for a bit. Other times complaining, especially to yourself, is a start down the long dark road of self pity and “Why-me?” It’s not a particularly good or pleasant road to be on, but it happens to everyone, whether you have an illness or not.
It usually starts out innocently enough. You’re confronted with some difficult situation and either you don’t want to or don’t have the energy to look for the elusive silver lining (It’s there, I promise.), so your mind starts complaining. Or maybe you do find the silver lining but your mind starts complaining anyways, and the more it complains, the more it finds to complain about. It’s then, if you’re like me, that a little voice in your head interrupts, trying to stop the downward progression of things, with “well, it could be worse.” For the longest time I didn’t give much thought to this response, because it was invariably true. It could be worse. The voice then would launch into a list of all the ways things could have gone worse, all the symptoms I could, all the things that could be that are undeniably worse than what is. Yet instead of making me feel better, it always made things exactly as they could be, worse.
It wasn’t until a therapist made a comment about the importance of validating feelings that I started to really pay attention to what that voice said. At face value it was simply reminding me that things were not so bad, that they could be so much worse, in an effort to stop the downward spiral. It was helpful; it was grounding; it kept me from getting too out of touch with reality. However, reading between the lines, it was not so genial. It said things like “You have no right to be complaining! Why can’t you just be happy? You’re complaining about nothing!” The voice was berating me for not being happy with my current situation. It was telling me that I was wrong for feeling the way I was.
It was unsettling to see just how mean I could be to myself, and I started to look for ways to change the underlying message. I still liked and needed to be able to throw on the breaks when I was heading in a not good thought direction, but I didn’t want the rest. The solution I found was deceivingly simple. I started adding “but it could be better” to the end of “It could be worse”. This allowed me to retain the grounding value of the original statement, but also acknowledge that it was okay to be feeling what I was feeling. Adding those five words brought the balance I craved.
It could be worse but it could be better.
The really interesting thing happened when I started using those words with other people. Believe it or not, I have friends, and sometimes they complain to me about what’s going on in their lives. Inevitably the phrase “but it could be worse” comes up. I think it’s in an effort to remind me, the listener, that they’re aware of the reality that things could be worse, that they know they’re complaining. At least that’s how I use the phrase. And that’s okay, actually, I think it’s a good thing to be aware that yes, things could be worse. Still, since I was aware of how nice it was to have the validity of my feelings acknowledged by myself, so I decided to try with others. I think people expect to hear, “yeah, it could be worse” aka “it’s not that bad, stop complaining”, so hearing “but it could be better” aka “you’re right, it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean that you are wrong for feeling the way you do about it” is a little startling. It usually makes them smile. Overall I get a very positive reaction.
I also find that “but it could be better” carries extra weight with those who know about my illness. When someone knows I’m sick and is complaining about something such as being tired or being in pain, that I experience daily as a symptom, it’s especially common for him or her to use “but it could be worse”. I appreciate that they are acknowledging that we feel pain and tiredness on different scales, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it at all. It’s not as if my having to deal with it automatically means that no one else ever gets tired, or ever feels pain, or if they do that it’s not as disruptive and annoying. That’s absolute bullshit. If anything my experience of those things makes me more able to sympathize with someone else experiencing them. By saying “but it could be better”, I can let people know that I’m okay with them complaining about things that I experience, that I understand that it’s not any more fun for them to be tired than it is for me, that it’s okay.
Anyways, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the phrase “but it could be worse” is a double-edged sword to be wielded with caution. While it can nip the “Why-me?” spiral in the bud, it can also cut deep by invalidating emotions you have every right to be feeling. The best way I’ve found for protecting myself from being cut is adding “but it could be better”, and maybe it will work for you too. It’s important to validate yours and other’s feelings. Even though, yes things could be worse, that doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for feeling the way you do about them. And oddly enough, the phrase works well in reverse too; it could be better but it could be worse. That’s the beauty of the balance. Nine words that make it okay to feel what you feel while still staying in touch with reality.
Things could be worse but they could be better.