Related to my last blog post.
Once upon a time, when I was a student, I lost a 20 pounds note. I went back looking for it everywhere I’d been, but – unsurprisingly – I never found it. That’s roughly $30, which, even back in the days, was not a huge sum. At the time, however, it was two week’s non-essential money for me. I had paid my rent and had a food stash, but that loss meant that if I needed or wanted anything for two weeks – a chocolate bar, new shoes, a book for school, a new tyre for my bike, plasters, anything – I could not get it.*
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, I was doing something I loved and felt incredibly optimistic about but I had very little money, blah blah. That’s not the important bit. The reason this story matters to me is that it highlights a serious problem in how people measure other people’s stress levels, and evaluate their reactions to events.
When judging the ‘correct’ reaction to an event, people have a terrible tendency to ignore the impact the event actually had on the person who went through it. They look at the impact the event would have on them, in the situation they are in. This can cause them to grossly underestimate the cumulative stress impact of an event on other people.
I could lose £20 now and literally not notice. I am not rich, but I’m comfortable enough that the impact of that loss would be negligible. Back then, though, the same loss had serious, potentially catastrophic repercussions. Same event, different impact. Lo and behold, my stress levels resulting from the event reflect that.
The more complex the aftermath of an event can be, the more ramifications it carries, the worse this misunderstanding gets. People for whom the event would be insignificant are often blind to its potential fallout. So not only they don’t appreciate how big a stressor the original event was, but they can’t perceive the additional stressors it results in.
I know people whose entire life fell apart because of a motoring offence. They got a fine they couldn’t pay on time, so the amount they needed to pay got bigger and bigger, and they definitely couldn’t pay that, so they lost their car or had their wages garnished, so they lost their jobs or homes, so their partners left them, and so on and so forth. And yes, the fact that the original event could impact them that badly might have been the result of some pretty poor adulting on their part. (Why were they so under-resourced? Why was there nobody in their life who could help them out?) Sometimes, though, shit just happens. If enough of it happens to a single person in a short space of time, things can get very serious very quickly.
You could have an individual whose life hangs in the balance as a result of an event, and whose stress levels reflect this, yet the people around are completely clueless as to what is really going on. So not only they don’t offer any practical support, but they make the person feel worse by constantly banging on about how they’re ‘over-reacting.’ This haranguing is another stressor… and on and on it goes.
*Yes, I could have got it by getting in debt, either with my bank or from friends. But debt has a way of escalating, and I was too poor to afford that.