When we are suffering, we often have the mistaken, yet very real experience, that we are alone in our suffering. We can create the notion that “everyone else has it figured out” and we are somehow uniquely flawed. The sense of disconnected and isolation that this mindset generates can cause us to fixate on what is not working and prevent us from taking action to changing our situation.
According to health pscyhologist, Kelly McGonigal, helping other people can truly be one of the most uplifting actions we can take, reminding us of our purpose and value. Yet, isolation tendencies can prevent both supporting others and asking for support. The critical things that we are forgetting during these times is that all people experience stress, distress, and suffering. Even those who we imagine to be free of troubles and deeply happy have experiences of anger, loss, pain, grief, and uncertainty.
In her book, The Upside of Stress, McGonigal outlines the factors that can amplify this effect. Often, we determine our personal suffering to be greater than that of others because we are deeply embedded in our own internal experience and know only the external presentation of others. The trend in conversations and social media towards presentation of a positive image and life experience can amplify our sense that we are alone in our full experience of being human - which includes ALL emotions, many ups and downs, and times of deep sadness and fear. Studies show that spending time on social media can increase loneliness and decrease satisfaction with life, says McGonigal.
Researchers call the degree to which you see your own struggles as part of the human condition common humanity. A higher degree of common humanity can help us to feel more connected to others when we are struggling the most. When we convince ourselves that we are alone in our stress, we are more likely to experience depression, become avoidant, give up on our goals, and avoid stressful experiences, according to McGonigal. Those who understand suffering as a part of the human experience are more resilient, happier, and satisfied with life.
So, what should we do about it? According to McGonigal, the first step is to increase your awareness of other people’s suffering. The second is to be more open about yours. If you are reading this, you officially have permission to go be vulnerageous! Go connect with an old friend, or make a new one! Tell your partner about a challenging experience, or bravely speak your challenges to a co-worker.