But They Have It Worse Off: The Problem with Comparative Suffering

By Reaghan Beaver, MFT Intern

Comparative suffering can oftentimes cause more harm than good.

What is Comparative Suffering?

Often, I hear others comparing what they are going through to what others are experiencing. In the last few years, it has become somewhat of a social media trend to not express your frustration, dissatisfaction, and struggles in life because “others have it worse off”—a phenomenon known as comparative suffering. If you have not heard that phrase, it is likely you have heard this one: “You need to eat all of your vegetables because kids in Africa are starving”. These phrases, while not necessarily untrue, diminish the often-painful experiences people (and ourselves) are dealing with.

This cultural trend has resulted in people not feeling safe enough to be vulnerable and hurtful incidents for fear of being told “Well at least you’re young and can try again”. While the intent is often to remind the one struggling that it could be worse, the sentiment causes more damage than intended. A friend of mine once said “Suffering knows no constraints, it is like a gas filling any void it finds” (Marley Vebares, BA, SMFT).

Denying your emotions can lead to feelings of shame, resentment, and loneliness. Instead, we can validate our own experiences, which helps create compassion for others.

The Trouble with Comparative Suffering 

Our society has primed us to without thinking, start ranking our own suffering and use it to deny giving ourselves permission to feel what were you experiencing. Unfortunately, just because we tell ourselves what we’re feeling isn’t important does not make our feelings or our emotions disappear. Engaging in denying your emotions, they begin to fester and metastasize and then shame is born.

While I believe people have good intentions (thought: this will help them feel better) when engaging in comparative suffering, I know that comparing one ‘s own suffering to another it is harmful. Instead of helping this form of comparison can lead to:

  • Denying our emotions often leads to shame, fear, frustration, and loneliness
  • Feelings of inadequacy, bitterness, or resentment when we’re suffering more than others, or feelings of guilt when we’re not suffering as much
  • Struggle to find joy in blessings and accomplishments 
  • False assumptions about others
  • Isolation, because it appears no one understands what we’re going through

How to Combat Comparative Suffering

So how do we overcome comparative suffering? First, we need to acknowledge and validate our own experience with pain and suffering. By being vulnerable with ourselves and validating our own experiences we can become more compassionate towards others.

To get rid of the shame that was born because of the comparative suffering think trap we have found ourselves in, we must lean into empathy. When we are operating with empathy our attention is then focused on another person and trying to understand their experience. To stop comparative suffering or ranked suffering we must become aware, validate our experiences, and operate from the place of empathy, which will result in the healing we desire.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked.”

– Brene Brown

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