The Trap of Comparative Suffering

March 10, 2022

This is a guest post written by Claire Dinan

As much as we like to compare our successes to our peers, we also love (or can’t help) to compare our suffering. While our intentions are usually good, the surprising trap is that it can often result in a lack of empathy towards yourself and others. 

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself comparing, and minimising, my problems relative to issues I perceive as more important in the world. 

For example,“I feel exhausted and overwhelmed by travelling and moving across the world. But that’s ridiculous. I am so lucky and privileged to be able to do this (true) and there are so many people in the world suffering at the moment (Ukraine springs to mind). I have nothing to feel overwhelmed by.” 

We silence ourselves and push the suffering down because we feel it doesn’t measure up. Or other people do it for us. Or we try to minimise others' feelings by comparing their experience to someone else’s. This action is called comparative suffering.

Here’s what it sounds like:

“Well, if you just take a different perspective….” 

“Things could be worse, at least you’re not…..”

“It’s okay that I didn’t get the promotion… I’m lucky I still have a job & a roof over my head”

If any of those phrases, or some version of them sound familiar to you, then welcome to the club.

Of course there are some benefits, the main one being it helps us gain perspective. However, the issue with ranking our suffering is that we don’t give ourselves, or others, permission to feel. We end up judging our, or others’, level of suffering. Chastising one or the other for not thinking about others in more difficult situations.

Having this “perspective” on your suffering may feel as though you’re being strong-minded but it’s doing the opposite. In fact, acknowledging our feelings of sadness, disappointment or pain is much more difficult…which is why we tend to avoid it. But the truth is, the more reps we put in trying to acknowledge and process our feelings, the more we grow, and the more resilient we become. 

Of course it’s important to also be able to zoom out and put our problems in perspective, and this can help us get through difficult times (i.e. recognising that a difficult experience will soon pass), but the danger is skipping past the feeling and just trying to rationalise our emotions away.

Instead, if we turn towards our feelings and give them the space to be there, we can start the practice of self-compassion.

I know what some of you are thinking. “Can’t we be too self-compassionate / compassionate?” 

You know the moment. A friend comes to you with an issue that feels trivial to you, or you have a thought that feels ‘self-indulgent’:

  • Not getting a promotion when other friends of yours are being made redundant
  • Complaining about a lack of holiday when there are people living as refugees
  • Complaining about wearing a mask when other countries don’t even allow their citizens to leave
  • Complaining about their remote working Wi-Fi when they’re having the experience of a lifetime…

Maybe you’re wondering whether being kind to yourself once will become a slippery slope to indulging in negative thoughts. Maybe you feel that being helpful to a friend is to show them how much they have to be grateful for, rather than ‘stew’ in their feelings. 

Luckily, you would be wrong. The research by Dr. Kirsten Neff (+ others) indicates that self-compassionate people are actually more likely to:

  • Take personal responsibility for past mistakes rather than self-critics. And be less emotionally upset by them
  • Pick themselves up after failing at a task and work towards a new goal
  • Be less depressed, anxious, and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about their future. In short, they have better mental health
  • Motivate themselves to reach their full potential and have higher “self-efficacy” beliefs, which means they have more confidence in their ability to succeed. 

There are two ways to motivate someone - the carrot or the stick. I like to think of self-criticism as the stick, and self-compassion as the carrot. They both might get you to the same outcome. But which one is going to feel better in the process? And without any added baggage of shame or guilt? 

In my opinion, it’s pretty wonderful that showing more kindness to ourselves and others has all of these other benefits. So why wouldn’t we start showing up for ourselves and others in a way that is kind, and not critical. And all reap the rewards. 

So, a few ideas to get you started: 

  1. Say “I’m sorry to hear that” – start by acknowledging the feeling. The next time a friend, colleague or loved one comes to you with a problem. Instead of offering up comparisons as to how their situation may be lighter through a different perspective, let the first thing you say acknowledge their suffering. 
  2. Feel your own feelings (self-compassion) – the hardest and most uncomfortable thing to do. It’s easy to squash the feelings down and think you’ve moved on but the truth is unless you acknowledge and process the feeling, it’s likely still hidden away somewhere in the back of your mind. 
  3. Learn the power of “And” – this is probably one of the biggest changes I’ve made to my internal dialogue over the past few years that’s made the biggest difference. I can feel disappointed that my business didn’t grow to the extent I wanted it to AND feel proud of where I got it. I can feel overwhelmed and tired from a situation AND be very happy to be there. 

For me, learning about comparative suffering was a big ah-ha moment. 

I still find myself jumping to comparison to try to make myself or those around me feel better. Whilst my intentions are usually good, and sometimes I may feel as though a healthy dose of perspective might be needed, it might have the opposite effect of making someone feel better.

I have always been a tough self-critic and self-compassion is something I’ve really had to work on. But every time I do a rep, it becomes easier and more natural for compassion to be my go-to response. And I’ve learnt how much better the carrot feels than the stick.

As Brené Brown says:

“Comparative suffering is dangerous… When we practice empathy, we create more empathy… Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy, the healing the results affects all of us.”