Let Go of Comparative Suffering
Pain isn’t a competition. Learn how to experience your challenges without guilt or entitlement.
By Becky Mollenkamp, PCC
When I asked my client to share what she really wanted for her career, she hesitated. She had already achieved so much, and she felt guilty for wanting more when there were so many people who had so much less.
The next day, another client was having a difficult time in her personal life. While we were talking about it, she stopped to tell me that she knew it could be worse. She felt bad about complaining when others had bigger challenges.
Each of these clients were engaged in comparative suffering, a concept I first learned about from vulnerability researcher Bréne Brown. She says comparative suffering is when we “rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel.”
Although she put words to this phenomenon, it wasn’t new to me—and I bet it’s not to you either. I always evaluated and ranked my experiences’ against others, measuring my own success or suffering based on how it compared to that of other people.
I could never truly feel my pain because there was always someone who had it worse. And I could never celebrate my wins without feeling guilty about those who weren’t winning.
Comparative suffering often sounds like, “I can’t feel this way when someone else is going through that” or “who am I to do this when others are going through that?” At its worst, it sounds like, “who are they to feel that when I’m experiencing this?”
“I can’t be frustrated about my partner’s behavior when my friend is going through a divorce.” “Who am I to be excited about my promotion when so many people I know are unemployed?” “Who is she to be upset about not getting that raise when I make half as much money as her?”
Why we engage in comparative suffering
What causes us to engage in comparative suffering? Why do some of us do it more than others? Brené Brown suggests that it’s a byproduct of fear and scarcity, the belief that there are a finite amount of resources.
I don’t have enough, or I have too much so someone else won’t have enough. Will there ever be enough? Who has more, who has it better?
It’s as if there’s a pie with a limited number of slices. When you or someone else gets a slice, there’s less to go around. We compare our experience to others because we want to make sure we are getting our slice, and because we want to ensure that we aren’t preventing others from getting a slice, too.
This scarcity thinking applies to everything—money, love, happiness and, as Brené Brown suggests, even empathy. Practicing empathy with others or yourself means there’s less to go around.
The truth is, though, denying your true feelings doesn’t benefit others. You can have empathy for your circumstances and still have plenty left for others. The starving child doesn’t gain anything from you withholding compassion for your own problems.
In fact, the best way to ensure that you have a reserve of empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.
If you recognize scarcity thinking in yourself, please know that it’s not a personal failing. It’s a learned behavior, a consequence of living in patriarchy and capitalism.
Patriarchy is a hierarchical system that ranks people. Whiteness and maleness are at the top of the pyramid, along with things like class and ability. The more of the desired boxes you check, the higher your rank in the hierarchy, and the fewer you check, the lower your rank.
Comparison and scarcity are inherent in a hierarchical system. Your worth and what you have or can get is directly dependent on how you stack up against everyone else.
Patriarchy created capitalism, which further contributes to this hierarchy and to feelings of scarcity by creating haves and have nots. The top 10% of people in the world have 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 10% share less than 1%
When you’re born into these powerful systems, where scarcity thinking is deeply rooted into all aspects of our culture and institutions, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the comparison trap.
How comparative suffering hurts us
Unfortunately, comparative suffering only exacerbates the us vs. them, haves vs. have nots mentality and reality. It creates greater disconnection from each other, reducing capacity for empathy and humanity (and increasing the likelihood of hoarding resources).
Feelings don’t disappear just because you believe they’re inappropriate or don’t “count.” Denying your real emotions only causes them to get locked away, and to grow in the darkness.
Comparative suffering can turn into guilt, resentment, bitterness, entitlement, or worse. It can also metastasize into shame—the belief that you are bad, not just that your feelings are bad.
Suffering in silence can also takes its toll on your mental and physical health. It can lead to exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout.
And when you don’t allow for your own pain—or when you feel ashamed about it—you’re more likely to harshly judge others’ pain. You may roll your eyes or call a friend “dramatic” for being upset about something that you deem “small” and not a “real” problem.
At its best, comparative suffering helps establish perspective and feel gratitude. At its worst, though, it minimizes your feelings, creates shame, and turns you into a judgmental jerk.
How to stop comparative suffering
Yes, pain is relative but it’s also universal. Whether you have massive amounts of privilege or none, you will struggle and have problems. Denying that reality doesn’t make it go away, so here are a few ideas for how to stop comparative suffering.
1. Feel Your Feelings
Give yourself permission to feel your disappointment, sadness, joy. Whatever you are feeling is real and valid. Remember that you honoring your emotions doesn’t in any way negate or affect another person’s reality.
2. Practice Empathy
To truly be compassionate toward others, you must be compassionate to yourself. Viewing your own feelings without judgment allows you to do the same for others. When you feel comparative suffering coming up, take a deep breath and treat yourself the way you would to a child, or the way you’d want your best friend to treat you. Empathy is the antidote to shame, and developing it takes consistent practice.
3. Find the And
Two things can exist at the same time. You can have your pain and others can experience something worse. Instead of thinking, “I can’t feel this if they feel that,” shift your language to “I can feel this and they can feel that.” This is a healthy way to maintain perspective rather than slipping into unhealthy comparison.
4. Lean Into Gratitude
Getting caught in the comparison trap can make it impossible to ever feel satisfied with your life. Your wins nor your losses are ever enough. Everyone has it better or worse, and your life is just meh. It can help to keep a gratitude journal or develop a gratitude meditation practice to shift you into deeper appreciation for your life as it is. But steer clear of forced gratitude because it’s not genuine and doesn’t help.
5. Practice Self-Care
Even with the tips above, you’ll likely always have waves of comparative suffering. Again, it’s so baked into our culture that it’s hard to avoid. Since it won’t likely go away, and it can lead to overwhelm and burnout, it’s important to protect yourself from harm by practicing self-care. That means regularly doing things that nourish your mind, body and soul.
6. Seek Help
Having a safe space to share your wins and your losses is important. It allows you to feel your feelings without fear of being judged, including by your own internalized stigma about suffering. If you don’t have people you can trust, a therapist can provide that safe space. Plus, they can help you develop coping strategies for managing comparative suffering.
It’s difficult to unlearn a deeply conditioned reaction, but it’s possible to step outside of comparative suffering with focus and effort. And doing so will help you avoid guilt, resentment, bitterness, entitlement, and shame, and help you honor your feelings and deepen your empathy for self and others.