Humans have a time-honored tradition of evaluating their pain through the lens of other people’s experiences. The mental health term for this is “comparative suffering.” Comparative suffering has been fortified in our digital age, with graphic images of war and natural disasters displayed in vivid color from our pockets, living rooms, and public establishments.
While there are remarkable benefits to living in the age of the global village, there are also profound ramifications for mental health including the unnecessary suffering that occurs when we downplay our own struggles out of deference to others. There seems to be this unspoken rule that, by speaking our own pain, we are sucking the metaphorical oxygen out of the room and thereby depriving others. But compassion is not a finite resource that can be exhausted when suffering is rampant.
Comparative suffering is trying to make sense of our pain by comparing it to other people’s pain. People may decide their pain is insignificant compared to others, or that it’s greater than other people’s pain. Both types of comparison can be damaging to our mental health. Here are a few examples of comparative suffering:
These kinds of comparisons have the potential to exacerbate an already painful situation.
Many people have good intentions when engaging in comparative suffering. We might think we’re being thoughtful and keeping a healthy perspective when we recognize that others have it harder than we do. Or we may think we’re being grateful and looking at the bright side—but gratitude is being mindful of our blessings, not diminishing our struggles.
In reality, comparative suffering can be harmful to us and the people we’re comparing ourselves to. Instead of helping, comparative suffering can lead to:
Pain is a natural part of living a human life. Suffering refers to the way pain is experienced and is something that can be mitigated.
Acknowledging and validating our own suffering can help us be more compassionate toward others. Here are five practical steps to help you move from comparative suffering to compassion:
As a therapist, I pay close attention to the things I hear most frequently across sessions. One thing I’m often told is, “I don’t want to burden the people closest to me by telling them how I’m really doing.” A thought exercise I often challenge people with is to think about the last time a close friend or loved one came to them with a struggle. When asked how it made them feel, people will tell me it made them feel good or useful—to which I then respond, “Might you be depriving someone else of the opportunity to feel good or useful by opening up to them?”
Of course, there can be limitations to this. There may come a time when a person close to you might not have the emotional bandwidth to support you in your particular struggle. Maybe they themselves are carrying a burden that outweighs their ability to cope. This has nothing to do with your lovability, nor is it grounds to abandon your own healing.
One way to suss out who might be able to help is to share something brief and see if the other person responds with openness. Or, you can ask a question. For example, “I’ve been going through something difficult over the past few weeks and I’m wondering if you’d have any time this week to talk by phone?”
By phrasing it this way, you’re enabling them to give their consent and input around when and how you might share. If they aren’t receptive, this doesn’t mean you as a person are too much. It may mean they’re struggling to help in this particular situation. This distinction is important.
Consider ways you may be dismissing yourself with your own speech. This can sound like starting a sentence with, “I know others have it worse but….” Life is hard for everyone, but in different ways. One way to honor your own unique pain is by simply sharing what you’re going through without using qualifying language. People who know you well enough are familiar with your character and can infer that you still care deeply about other things going on in your social circle or the world at large.
Another danger we run into is adapting a scarcity mentality. We may think we’re somehow upstaging someone else by finding an appropriate place to bring our pain. The reality is, compassion is as close as your next breath. It starts inside of you and isn’t based on random chance or luck. Having a support system of people who show kindness and compassion is important, in addition to what you can give yourself. If you don’t have this support system in place, consider talking with a therapist about how you might start to build one.
There will be days when the steps above feel idealistic at best. When you’re most tempted to give up hope, remember that clay can harden in the sun but butter melts. Imagine you are butter. Practically speaking, this can look like using progressive muscle relaxation to evict tension from your body.
Another way you can practice self-compassion is by approaching yourself with a warm, parental-like love. This may include rubbing your shoulder or arm gently or holding your face in your hands. You may also memorize a positive affirmation or two that you can practice using regularly.
Some people prefer to frame their affirmations as questions. For example, “How would I act differently if I believed I was confident and capable?” This challenges us to change behaviors that may not support our mental health. Thinking negative thoughts is the path of least resistance in our brains, but with practice, you can create new patterns that promote better mental health outcomes.
Neuroplasticity is a world unto its own. This means that every time you engage in a thought or behavior, you are forming pathways in your brain. The more often you engage in that thought or behavior, the easier it becomes and the more likely you are to repeat it. Imagine you’re on an expedition to find greater kindness within yourself and return to this place often by repeating similar thoughts and/or behaviors.
When you bear witness to your own pain, you may actually increase your capacity to love and care for the world around you. But don’t be surprised if you experience discomfort at first. My vision as a therapist and individual is that we wouldn’t surrender to hopelessness on this topic.
Dr. Kristin Neff, the pioneer of self-compassion, describes it best: “Some people find that when they practice self-compassion, their pain actually increases at first. We call this phenomena backdraft, a firefighting term that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is opened—oxygen goes in and flames rush out. A similar process can occur when we open the door of our hearts—love goes in and old pain comes out.”
Despite the challenges that come with practicing self-compassion and kindness, I implore you not to give up. You’re the common denominator in every environment you find yourself in and when you self-abandon, you make the world a much more difficult place to live in. If your fear is that you might be too indulgent, remember that you’re showing every other suffering person in the world what’s possible when you honor your own pain with dignity and truth.
Melanie Auerbach has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker in New York and Pennsylvania. She has provided evidenced-based care to both families and individuals, and works with Lyra as a Blended Care therapist. Melanie’s travels have given her a passion for providing meaningful and culturally competent mental health care to a diverse client base.