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A man says he’s finding working from home tough. Another replies: “At least you’re not furloughed.” A mother admits she’s finding homeschooling difficult. She’s told: “Be grateful you’re not living alone.”
Patience is wearing thin as the UK lockdown continues and we start arguing over who has it worse. Coronavirus is tough on everyone, yet it feels increasingly fraught to express distress at your personal situation, as friends, family and strangers online engage in this new sport of competitive misery.
Fear and anxiety may well be prompting this behaviour, with people seeking validation for their own feelings, says psychotherapist Lucy Beresford.
“We worry that people don’t understand us or hear our distress,” she tells HuffPost UK. “In a ‘survival of the fittest way’, we feel threatened when people talk about their own dramas, in case we are then ignored or overlooked and our longing for recognition is drowned out.”
While Covid-19 has unleashed lots of kindness, there is also a lot of anger around. For want of a more attainable target, we sometimes take aim at one another. “Attacking someone’s situation by highlighting your own problems is almost a cry for help,” says Beresford.
Even so, being on the receiving end of this form of one-upmanship can be hard to deal with. Hearing someone else “has it worse” rarely helps us to feel better about our own situation.
“It has long been the case that trying to remind someone going through a dark time that the world is full of starving people does not work,” says Beresford. “In fact it’s damaging, because it will feel to the person in pain that you are trying to minimise their situation or rubbish their feelings.”
If left unchecked, persistent one-upmanship can damage our relationships, says Relate counsellor Dee Holmes. This risks destroying our core networks when we need them most, causing us to focus on having the last word, rather than supporting each other.
If you’ve noticed this behaviour when messaging friends and family, Holmes recommends taking the conversation away from social media or Whatsapp and dealing with it personally, perhaps over the phone or a one-to-one video call.
“It may be that they misunderstood you,” she tells HuffPost UK. Try and see it from their point of view. Why did they feel the need to say what they did? Should you have said what you did? “For example if you commented about the negatives of homeschooling and had a response like ‘you are lucky you are not living alone’, respond directly with a ‘I am sorry my comment offended you. I can see that it must be hard being alone at this time.’”
Sympathetic comments can also take the heat out of debates with strangers on Facebook or Twitter, though Holmes says that you may find it easier to ignore those comments altogether.
If you’re the person doing the one-upping, perhaps feeling annoyed at people talking about problems that to you seem trivial, take a moment to acknowledge that this is a difficult time and we are all grappling with different issues.
“Acknowledge their issues and hope that gives them the space to acknowledge yours. You can say ‘I know it’s hard homeschooling your children, you must feel exhausted, I don’t have that problem but I do feel really scared and alone sometimes stuck in my flat alone.’”
It doesn’t help to judge others at the moment, nor will it help you feeling guilty about your own distress. Your feelings are valid, whether you’re an NHS frontline worker, a grieving family member, or someone struggling with the everyday challenges of lockdown. Breaking the cycle of one-upmanship and showing a little empathy has the potential to make everyone feel better.
“If you’re on the receiving end of empathy, it makes you feel supported and understood, which in turn might give you the strength to keep going or make healthy choices,” says Beresford. “And if you’re the giver of kindness or empathy, it can feel good knowing you might have made a huge difference to someone’s day.”