Most of us have an understanding that physical pain is relative. Some people have higher pain tolerances, and some people have lower pain tolerances. We don’t tend to place much judgment on that. When it comes to emotional pain, however, people are quick to judge.

You’re allowed to feel down or off for a day or two, maybe a few weeks (take the beginning of the pandemic vs. now as an example). But then, you have to pick back up where you left off, return to the hustle and bustle of the world, and never speak of it again.

Why we minimize our own experiences, and why it hurts us

One child cries more than their sibling or their classmates; the family and other students label them as “dramatic” instead of emotionally in-tune. 

What do we learn from this emotional judgement and comparison? We learn to hold our pain inside. Why does that matter? Because, then, the pain continues to live inside of you–to affect your body and mind negatively. 

People compare, judge, and dismiss trauma due to aged-out ideas. Compare it to this:

Parents didn’t always know the importance of responding to a child’s emotions and emotional needs. But modern research shows that if we don’t address emotional needs by, for example, responding when a baby cries, it can have concrete negative outcomes. With this knowledge, many parents now know that it’s a healthier choice to comfort a child and validate their feelings. 

So if we now know that invalidation, comparison, and holding it all inside can harm us, why do we continue to invalidate ourselves? How can we stop comparing our trauma to others’?

What does it mean to “toss the trauma yardstick”? 

A yardstick is used to measure. To toss the trauma yardstick means to throw away the idea that trauma must be measured, compared, and deemed valid or invalid. All trauma is worth addressing, no matter how it compares to worse things that could’ve happened. 

If you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel the way you do because others have had it worse, you don’t give yourself the space to feel your feelings, and therefore, take the steps needed to heal. 

We experience pain relative to other pain we have already experienced. Everyone’s maximum pain capacity is different, and there’s no shame in that. When we’re in pain, we’re in pain, and that is not something to ignore. No matter the cause or the measurement, you deserve to heal. 

Why we compare and invalidate ourselves 

The chances are that if you invalidate yourself, you have been invalidated by someone else. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this has happened to all of us and that it’s somewhat of a cycle. 

Why do people invalidate others? It could be that they have internalized shame about their own feelings and experiences, that they’ve been invalidated by other people themselves and are projecting it onto you, that they lack understanding, or that they don’t want to admit that negative experiences are as common as they are. 

Those are only some of the potential reasons, but the fact of the matter is that most people internalize invalidation from someone or somewhere else. After all, we aren’t born discarding pain. That is something we learn, and unfortunately, can pass on to others through well-intended phrases like, “It could be worse.”

With that in mind, you can end the cycle by feeling your feelings, validating yourself, and understanding that, first, your experience matters, and second, you deserve to heal. You don’t need to measure your trauma.

How to stop measuring your trauma and start the healing process 

Healing takes time, and it’s not always easy. Here are some ways to end the cycle of invalidation and start healing:

1. Validate yourself. 

First and most imperatively, actively validate your experiences. Acknowledge that what happened hurt. Acknowledge how it affects you. Acknowledge how and when you feel it, how it shows up in your life, and, if applicable, what your triggers are. Say to yourself, “I didn’t deserve that.” If you struggle to validate yourself, think about it from outside of yourself. If it was a friend, a child, a partner, or a parent, for example, would you be able to extend compassion to them and understand that what happened was hurtful? This can help you see that what you went through is serious and worth putting care toward. Continue to see the validity of your experiences and reject the impulse to measure and dismiss your trauma. 

Part of validation, too, can be self-compassion. Start to think of yourself through a loving, compassionate lens. It’s not linear; the hard days will be there, and you might feel vulnerable or emotionally raw. Extend some extra care to yourself on those days. 

2. Do what you need to do to heal. 

You are the expert on your own experiences. You know what hurts you, and most likely, deep down, you either know your needs or can get to a place where you do. Your healing process is yours. It doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. 

Note that healing isn’t just “feeling better.” Healing can also mean:

  • Crying/letting yourself feel emotions
  • Accepting help from other people
  • Saying “no” 
  • Saying “yes” 
  • Learning about yourself and continuously discovering your identity 
  • Branching out, both socially and in terms of activities
  • Believing that you’re deserving of the things you want in life 
  • Changing or letting go of unhealthy relationship dynamics
  • Allowing new, healthy relationships in 
  • Deciding what matters most to you
  • Working on communication
  • Letting yourself rest 

Healing means that you might disappoint or surprise other people sometimes. It means that, at times, you’ll have to put yourself first. It means being vulnerable, taking risks, and going for what makes you happy–what aligns with your authentic self. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

3. Find nonjudgemental community and support. 

It can be very important for those who have survived trauma to look at the social relationships in their life or to think about what kind of social relationships they want to have. Look for friends who it feels good to be around, who you can be yourself around, who are emotionally in-tune and aware, and who inspire or appreciate the direction of growth you want. People who embrace who you are, and who you embrace equally for who they are, are essential. 

It’s also highly advantageous to find people who are going through something similar. This can be through a support group, an online group, or something else. 

Sometimes, people find that interpersonal relationships and other areas of their life change when they heal, start to set boundaries, and learn about themselves. While change can be tough, the right people are out there. 

If you need a confidential, unbiased ear from someone who isn’t in your personal life (sometimes, we all do), a peer support network like Supportiv can help.