How to Overcome Comparative Suffering

February 18, 2021

What is Comparative Suffering?

During this past year of the pandemic, as well as persistent racial and social inequities, we may have found ourselves adopting a mindset of comparative suffering. Comparative suffering involves feeling the need to see our own suffering in light of other people’s pain. With this perspective, we start to rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel. It may even cause us to feel guilty when we’re not suffering as much as other people.

Here are some common examples of comparative suffering: We might say, “I can’t be disappointed about my senior year events being cancelled when people are sick and dying.” Or “I can’t be worried about my children, when there are families without a roof over their heads right now.” Or, “Why should I be tired and angry right now? I have a job and so many people don’t.”

Why Comparative Suffering is Unhelpful

We try to brush off our own painful emotions when we engage in comparative suffering. But emotions don’t go away just because we don’t see them as valid enough compared to other’s suffering. Brené Brown explains how this can be a dangerous thought process. When we deny the emotions we feel, they can fester and grow. They invite shame. We begin to feel ashamed for feeling sad, scared, frustrated, or lonely when we are fixated on the idea that “other people have it much worse than me.”

This thought process makes us believe that if we allow ourselves to feel upset or disappointed then we are delegitimizing the people who are suffering more than us. Brené explains that this shame isn’t helpful because, “when we feel shame, our inward focus overrides our ability to think about other people’s experiences, becoming unable to offer empathy, incapable of processing information about that other person.” Essentially, the shame we may feel from comparing our suffering is so focused on ourselves that it doesn’t give us the room to even consider those who we are most worried about.

There’s no hierarchy of pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest.”

Lori Gottlieb

How to Overcome Comparative Suffering

Feel What You’re Feeling

Give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling right now. It’s okay for us to acknowledge our disappointments or frustrations. Of course, it’s important for us to have perspective, recognize our privilege and to practice gratitude for what we have. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to feel our more uncomfortable emotions. All emotions are valid.

Learn the Power of “And”

We can make subtle changes in our language to shift away from guilt or shame. It can be as simple as replacing the word “but” with “and.” We may initially tell ourselves, “I feel disappointed but others feel the same or worse.” Instead, we can say, “I feel disappointed and others feel the same or worse.” These two things can exist at the same time. Instead of comparing, give yourself the space to express both.

Practice Empathy

Perhaps the best remedy for comparative suffering is practicing empathy. It starts with ourselves. Putting ourselves down because we’re struggling but have it so much better than others right now can kill our empathy for others. The best way to ensure compassion and for others during difficult times is by attending to our own feelings and being kind to ourselves. When we practice empathy, shame can no longer exist alongside it.

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