You Think YOU’VE Got Problems? When Perspective Leads to Guilt and Shame

We often feel guilty for mourning our own challenges and losses when they seem to pale in comparison to those of others.

As frustrating as small setbacks are, and as painful as larger challenges such as a breakup or a job loss can be, they can suddenly seem like not such a big deal in the light of tragedies such as natural disasters and horrific acts of violence, or a major adversity that another individual is facing.

Many people respond to the insight of perspective by throwing a bunch of guilt and shame on top of their pain—saying to themselves, “There are people with real problems in the world, and I shouldn’t be complaining about this—or even feeling bad about it.”

Then, being only human, they go on feeling bad, and feel even worse for feeling that way!

This approach is taking something with great helping and healing potential (perspective) and transforming it into something destructive (guilt and shame).

Guilt is not a helping emotion. Neither is shame.

Both emotions feed negative energy and keep you stuck—and do nothing to help those “people with real problems,” either.

To deal with such situations more constructively, take a both-and approach.

When truly horrible problems come to your attention as you are mourning your own setbacks, you can choose both to gain the perspective that such awareness brings, AND to be compassionate with yourself in acknowledging and working through your own challenges.

To take the both-and approach, remember two things:

1. It’s okay (and totally normal) to be sad about your struggle or loss. Your pain is no more or less valid than anyone else’s, and everyone’s pain is relative to his or her own circumstances. Our own pain is our own pain, and we can only know what we know. Instead of feeding guilt and destructive thoughts by “shoulding all over yourself,” feed self-compassion (which is different from self-pity). Be gentle with yourself and your feelings as would a parent soothing a baby, nurturing yourself with unconditional love. Feed compassion for yourself and your compassion for others will grow, too.


2. Yes, in almost all cases, there are worse things than what you’re dealing with. Instead of beating yourself up for feeling bad about your own situation, which helps no one, here are three positive choices you can make when given the gift of perspective:

  • Choose to do something to help another person or group. Tragic events or instances of major adversity sometimes give us opportunities or reminders to get out of our own “stuff” and get into action to help someone else. Ask: How can I help? When you make that choice, it is almost always a win-win; you make a contribution, and you take your mind off of your own problems and move forward.
  • Choose to do something to help yourself. Perspective is a gift, holding your problem up to the light and helping you see it for what it is: a circumstance or set of circumstances that don’t match what you want—but not the end of the world. Inherent in that flicker of recognition that your circumstances are not the end of the world is the truth that you still have the power to make choices to bring your situation closer to what you want. Ask: What’s one little, tiny thing I can do right now to get closer to the life I do want?
  • Choose to refocus your attention to actively appreciate something that you do have. Tragic events or instances of great adversity put our problems in perspective and remind us not to take for granted all of our blessings. However, beware the “should” monster! If it feels like a forced exercise to practice gratitude (this often sounds like: “Here are all the reasons I should be grateful, and instead I’m whining, crying, and moaning—I’m the worst!”), it may help to change “gratitude” to “awareness” or “mindfulness.” Instead of trying to force gratitude for what you have, cultivate awareness of what you have. Just bring your awareness to the present moment. Ask: What do I have that I can enjoy right now? And then engage with that. With gentle awareness, the gratitude is likely to follow naturally.

What shifts have you experienced due to major moments of perspective? Share in the comments below.

1 thought on “You Think YOU’VE Got Problems? When Perspective Leads to Guilt and Shame”

  1. The different effect that comparing one’s own problems with those worse off can have on different people finally dawned on me after years of trying to cheer my husband up by pointing out the ways in which our situation compared favorably to others’. That sort of perspective almost always cheers me up — for example, pausing for a moment to be grateful for my children’s good health (knock wood) almost always alleviates a bit of my frustration with whatever lesser problem they may be causing me. “It could be worse!” actually does cheer me. My husband, on the other hand, hears that kind of thing and instantly feels guilt and shame. Seeing your two-pronged approach laid out makes me realize that for him, the weight would best be on the former prong and for me, the weight works best on the latter prong.

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