In 2021 I embarked on a challenge to never be sad.
I felt I wasn’t allowed to. I’m a white male in a first world country, I’m the definition of privileged. The only minority I belong to is being an Australian Rules player in a rugby state. Besides quips that I play ‘GayFL’, I don’t know what discrimination is.
I found myself equating being sad to being ungrateful.
Not wanting to become a ‘North Shore Princess’ I devised a simple plan. Anytime I felt my mood drop, I’d think of some kid who lives in a mudbrick house in the slums of Africa. It acted as a reminder of how fortunate I am, that any complaint was my privilege having a tantrum.
The idea was inspired by the role reference points play in the toxicity of social media.
Reference points are “a salient standard against which all subsequent information is compared”. The problem with social media is it distorts these standards from our immediate environment to the highlights of people around the world.
One moment I’m perfectly content with my (slightly overcooked) supermarket steak. The next, after opening Instagram, I’m left underwhelmed as I see someone eating a steak with salt sprinkled on it by this guy:
Reverse Reference Points
My plan to never be sad was to reverse the concept of reference points. To reset my standards to a situation much worse than mine.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rather, these ‘reverse reference points’ bred their own form of toxicity.
Brene Brown explains we are not logical beings. We are emotional beings that think. Meaning when feeling negative emotions, no level of logic is going to make you feel better. In fact, the best way to work through the emotions is through having them validated.
In my Dad’s training at Lifeline, a crisis help-line, you’re taught that the people who call are sitting in a “sandbox of shit”. They don’t want to be helped out of the sandbox by someone who tries to reframe the situation they’re in for the positive. That’s a prime example of toxic positivity.
What they really need is someone to lead with empathy and is willing to go sit in that sandbox with them. To validate the negative emotions they are feeling.
Empathetic statements become mantras. There is no reframing, only statements like, “you’re right, it must be so hard dealing with that”.
Lead with Empathy
But why are ‘reverse reference points’ toxic? They breed a lack of compassion.
Our instincts, when someone is sitting in the metaphorical ‘box of shit’, is to reframe it in a way that it doesn't seem so bad: “well on the brightside the shits dry so it won’t stick to your clothes when you get out”.
Or to compare it to an even worse situation: “well at least you’re not like the people in Ukraine who also have to sleep in shit”.
It’s only through an extreme example like this that we see how futile reframing is. It doesn’t change the fact you’re still sitting in a box of shit yourself.
However, it happens everyday.
At a dinner party recently we were speaking about private school kids and the problems they face. A comment was made about how they should get over themselves, they don’t have “real” problems.
When you compare the kids' problems, to the problems this person faced growing up in regional Australia, they’re right, relatively, the problems today aren’t “real”.
But to those kids they are. They have not experienced any worse.
If you begin to play the comparison game, where do you draw the line? To everyone affected by the war in Ukraine and currently living in a train station we are those ‘private school kids’. Does this mean none of us are ever allowed to feel negative emotions?
This is what I tricked myself into believing and where I led myself awry. I now appreciate that reverse reference points only become toxic when they are used to invalidate emotions.
It should come as no surprise that my experiment failed. But I did learn a valuable lesson about suffering. One that is captured by Zadie Smith, “Suffering is not relative; it is absolute. Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual—it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like “privilege.” If it could, the CEO’s daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his own brain.”
I now remind myself when those around me (including myself), find themselves in a sandbox of shit, to not reframe it, but lead with empathy. To share the moment with them, rather than compare it.
To receive a weekly newsletter on:
One question to ask yourself between sips of your iced oat latte.
One essay from me, that on average I promise will be slightly above average.
One drawing visualising a concept.
One entertaining failure from my week.