Comparative Suffering: Bad for You, Bad for Them

“How are you?”

“Okay, I guess. My boss is a nightmare and work is hectic so I’ve been staying late, which is causing problems in my relationship. I’m just so stressed out, but who am I to complain? At least, I have a job and partner.  There are people that don’t have either.”

How many times have you provided an answer like this to a question that involved something unpleasant about your life? Probably more than you realize – whenever someone asks me any question that involves a negative answer, you end with an explanation with some sort of “…and this is who has it worse than me, and I’m totally aware of that” type of statement.

But where did you get the idea that answering someone’s question with facts about your life is “complaining”? People often commit the fallacy of “comparative suffering.”

Comparative suffering is when one feels the need to see one person’s suffering in the light of other people’s suffering.

In other words, to the person who thinks in terms of comparative suffering, if you’re feeling lonely a lot, you get more suffering points than someone who got the wrong order at Starbucks, but fewer suffering points than someone whose parents both just died after being hit by a drunk driver. And if you live in America, you can basically just forget about the idea that you would ever really be suffering because there are starving children in Africa and India.

We’ve all heard people say things like this, seen evidence that they think like this, or even said and thought these things ourselves. Comparative suffering can seem like a really good pattern of thinking; “What’s the harm in counting my blessings?!” you might be wondering. But for several different reasons, the idea of comparative suffering can actually hurt both you and the people you’re applying it to.

First, comparative suffering can lead to burnout and quitting.

This happens when you compare yourself to others and see yourself coming out as the person who’s suffering most of all. Maybe you’ve been forced to take a job that you feel is beneath you while you struggle to find work in the field you’re passionate about. You may tell yourself that you’re suffering much more than the friends you see who are getting the jobs they want, getting paid a great salary, and already starting to rise through the ranks at their companies.  But when you tell yourself a story about how you have it so much worse than others, that doesn’t inspire you to work harder.

It just makes you bitter.

No one – or at least very, VERY few people – ever bittered their way to the top; it’s just not an effective outlook for changing your circumstances. Even if you legitimately have just not been getting any breaks, it’s healthier to recognize your own suffering and admit that it’s real than to dwell on how other people have it better than you. Moreover, you might not even be right when you think other people have it better than you. Entrepreneur Damon Brown gives a good reminder: “Elon Musk just had his record-breaking Tesla 3 launch as he was filing for divorce. And Steve Jobs reportedly blueprinted the next several years of Apple on his deathbed. I’m sure you have your own stuff. None of us has it easy.”

Second, it can make you withdraw from people.

This goes along with the bitterness described above. As much as it might be true that you might be having a harder time than some family members and friends, your family and friends didn’t set out to hurt you with their happiness or success. If they care about you, then they’re hoping right along with you that your situation turns around. But when you start lining up people’s suffering and figuring out who seems better off than you, it can change your whole perception of people.

Third, it can make you feel like people with “smaller” suffering aren’t worth your sympathy.

When you think of all suffering comparatively, it can make you… frankly, kind of a jerk. You start to see some people as “whiny” or “needy” when they’re open about feeling down. Brené Brown, a popular researcher and author who talks a lot about issues like emotional intelligence and vulnerability, writes about this issue in her book Rising Strong. Kelley Snyder, who blogged her way through Brown’s book, sums up Brown’s thoughts on comparative suffering perfectly:

“Empathy and compassion are not finite.” 

So, Snyder goes on, when you express compassion toward a friend who just had to start seeing a marriage counselor with her spouse, for instance, “you DO NOT DIMINISH COMPASSION available to others. The well of love and compassion is infinite. There is enough to go around.” So just because there may be starving children in Africa does not mean that your friend who’s perfectly well fed doesn’t still deserve your compassion when her marriage hits a rough spot. And if you withhold that compassion just because you think other people have it worse, you’re not in any way helping those people who you think have it worse. You’re not helping anyone.

Fourth, it can make you feel like your own suffering isn’t significant.

This can be difficult for some people to wrap their mind around, and maybe that’s because we all know people are legitimate complainers, who can just never see the bright side. I’m not trying to give you license to be one of those people. But I am saying that you don’t always have to beat yourself up about feeling down just because you’re not going through a struggle so epic that a Greek poet would write about it. Burying your feelings just because other people have it harder than you won’t help them magically disappear, and it is not the same as gratitude. Lots of psychologists recommend the practice of deliberate gratitude, and that’s because gratitude is great!

Remember: gratitude is being thankful for your blessings, not pretending that your struggles don’t exist.

When it comes down to it, comparative suffering will lessen your empathy – it’s just a question of whether it’ll be to yourself, others, or both. While you don’t have to indulge people who chronically complain, be kind to those you see suffering and be kind to yourself. No one goes through life without pain; the last thing any of us need is to pretend that pain isn’t valid.

Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL.  Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place.  Each therapist has their areas of expertise.  Not sure who you’d like to work with?  Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.

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