Welcome to Unprofessional Advice: A new column to help you handle problems of all kinds. Got a relationship query? Workplace drama? Is your roommate a narcotics kingpin? With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I will take on your issues with compassion and humor. Got a question? Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week: When your friends think your life is perfect, are you even allowed to complain?
Am I allowed to say I feel lonely (or that I understand my single friends' feelings of loneliness) even though I'm in a relationship? Can I say that I feel fat or heavy or unhealthy to my friends who are physically larger than me? I have been in both situations a number of times and I'm usually met with "You can't understand." But I can. I've battled depression and feel loneliness all the time. I have binge cycles, too. I know everything is relative and I'm not one for empty complaints. But in these moments, I'm either trying to connect with my friends, to sympathize, or to express what I'm going through, too. But because I have a partner and my body is not generally overweight, my friends seem offended that I'm even sharing these feelings. The conversation turns weird and I start frantically backpedaling.
The word "privilege" gets a lot of play these days: White privilege, thin privilege, straight privilege. In the grand scheme of things, this mass privilege-checking is an undeniably good thing. On a cultural level, we're in desperate need of it. As individuals, too, it behooves us to take a good look at the inherent privileges we benefit from, with or without merit. It's always good to err on the side of awareness.
But what I hear from this question is a shitty side effect of all this necessary privilege-checking: Personal invalidation. Because of course you can feel lonely while in a relationship. Most people in couples do from time to time! And as for feeling uncomfortable or unhealthy in your body? I'm relatively certain there's only a fraction of people who are 100% objectively aware of their bodies, and those people are not actually people, but unicorns. Pretty sure I saw that study somewhere.
You do not seem like someone unaware of her luck. By the conversation you describe, it doesn't sound like you're swanning into brunch already moaning about your unique and tragically unfortunate life. I can almost hear the hesitancy in your voice; and I'm telling you, you have nothing to feel bad about. There is a difference between being a clueless, constant whiner and genuinely trying to connect with your friends in an intimate conversation.
Okay, devil's advocating for a minute: I'm someone who was single until her late 20s and has never had a thin body. My best friend since high school is small, thin, and is the kind of person who gets approached on the street by people hoping she might model for their indie clothing line. Oh, and she's naturally blonde. Needless to say, she was decidedly not single until her late 20s. Was I ever jealous of her dating history? Yeah, obviously. Did I ever want to slap the blonde off her when she complained about feeling ugly? For sure. But those were only momentary feelings and quickly, my rational and empathetic mind would come in and take over. A real friend doesn't brush off another friend's pain, period.
So yes, like your single and heavy friends, I know what it's like to be annoyed and envious of other peoples' privilege, but guess what — so do they. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has absolutely no advantages at all. Maybe they complain about hating their job to someone who's unemployed? Maybe they're a new parent venting about motherhood to a woman who's struggling with infertility.
Just as you can never truly "know your own privilege," as they say, you can never know the intricacies of someone else's experience or internal life. That's why when someone sincerely expresses a feeling, you don't say, "You can't understand." When you do that, all you're doing is creating more division and isolation. True, you're not standing in their shoes, but even if your shoes are super fancy and comfortable, that doesn't mean you can't step off the sidewalk wrong and sprain your ankle. Or...a better metaphor. You get it.
Bottom line: At first glance, maybe it's hard for your friends to understand that you have bad days, too. But if they took a second and remembered not to be jerks, they'd recognize your feelings as valid. I'm not blaming you for this situation, but if you want it to change, I'd suggest you give them that moment to consider. By that, I mean don't backpedal. Don't try to make it less weird by saying something funny or changing the subject. Stick with it. Tell them how you feel and if it doesn't land, then say why you're telling them: "Hey, I'm really struggling with this. Can I vent to you for a second?" It's hard for anyone to ignore a genuine appeal like that. So don't offer caveats, don't be defensive, and don't try and downplay your feelings with sarcasm (though I know, it's so much easier than sincerely asking for support). It's not your job to make everyone comfortable. Let the discomfort be there for a second. Trust me. Vulnerability is scary as hell, but it'll save you.
Everyone has privilege and everyone has problems. It's everyone's job to be aware of both of those things and act accordingly. Do your best not to be a jerk and expect the same of others — especially your friends.