Comparison is the key part of comparative suffering. We try to rank suffering and privilege. Who has more? Who has it better or worse than me? What are they doing that I am not? In an attempt to create a hierarchy of feeling, we are actually impeding empathy and compassion.
Comparative suffering can work in two insidious ways.
I have it worse!
- I’m more tired than you. My job is more demanding than yours. I deal with more mental stress than you. You don’t even have to think about XYZ because I take care of it. You couldn’t handle what I do.
This often results in feelings of bitterness, blame, and resentment.
Or what do I have to complain about?
- I don’t have it as bad as the homeless person I passed on the street. Or my co-worker who just lost both of their grandparents. Or my friend who just had a miscarriage.
This looks like invalidating your own difficulties and pain because it doesn’t seem “bad enough” and it can result in shame, insecurity, and sadness.
Either way, this is not how emotional processing works. How do we measure what “enough” pain, disappointment, or suffering looks like? These emotions don’t go away because they didn’t rank high enough on our imaginary suffering scale; they get suppressed and bottled up.
Don’t discount your own mental and emotional suffering.
If two people are in a car accident and one person loses both legs and the other loses one arm- should the person who lost their arm not be sad, or be in less pain? No. A person can drown in an inch of water and an ocean of water. And that same logic applies to mental and emotional suffering.
Shame is internally oriented and self-focused. We can’t think about others or what they are going through because we are too worried about what they are thinking of us. Whereas empathy allows us to connect with the legitimacy of our emotional experience and extend that same grace to others.
Comparative suffering is not perspective-taking.
You can acknowledge that you had an exhausting day at work AND your partner is also tired from staying home with the kids all day. You can see that losing a parent AND losing a pet are both situations worthy of sadness and grief. One doesn’t outperform the other. We don’t have to put suffering on a scale, and we don’t have to compare and contrast our pain to decide who is allowed to feel it.
Empathy is not finite.
If we give ourselves empathy it does not mean we have less to offer for our family, friends, or the world. It is not a Thanksgiving pie that gets passed around until it is gone. The service worker you buy a coffee for doesn’t benefit from this kindness more because you didn’t offer empathy to the 10 other people you interacted with earlier that day. When we practice love, kindness, and empathy with ourselves we ensure that we have a reserve of these things to offer others.
The takeaway here is this: Comparing suffering serves no one. Honing an ability to honor your pain allows you to support others while ignoring or minimizing your suffering lessens your empathy reserve. Tend to yourself with compassion and watch as your ability to hold space for others grows.
About Jasmine Payne:
Jasmine is a Resident in Counseling and provides services at the Fredericksburg location. She is a two-time graduate of Longwood University, receiving her B.S. in Psychology along with an M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.
Throughout her graduate studies, Jasmine worked with teens and adults who belonged to various minority and multicultural populations. She also has familiarity with a wide spectrum of mental health concerns including anxiety/depression, grief, moodiness, self-improvement, motivation, relationship issues, and many more. To learn more about Jasmine, visit HERE.