Depression & BipolarLife Events & Trauma

3 Min Read

What is Comparative Suffering?

Comparative suffering involves feeling the need to see one’s suffering in light of other people’s pain. In other words, people who think in terms of comparative suffering may believe that they suffer more than someone who missed their bus, but less than a starving child. According to shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, people tend to wear uncomfortable moments like a badge of honor. In some cases, people can be quick to judge others who they feel haven’t paid their dues.

Brown recently spoke of comparative suffering in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic on an episode of her Unlocking Us podcast. Brown noted that when people operate from a place of fear and scarcity, they are more vulnerable to comparative suffering. For example, people working from home might compare themselves to workers on the front lines and decide that they don’t deserve to complain. When people assess their own suffering and decide that it doesn’t measure up to others, they block their natural reactions to events, including the feelings they have. 

Some people also use comparative suffering to make themselves feel small, even when they have accomplishments to celebrate. For instance, if you’re working hard to hit a work-related goal, you might minimize your accomplishment if you feel that your achievement is smaller than that of a coworker.

Woman looking out at water to show comparative suffering

Signs of Comparative Suffering

Comparative suffering affects everyone differently, but some of the most common signs of comparative suffering include:

  • Quitting and burnout: Quitting and burnout can happen when you compare yourself to others and see yourself as the one who suffers the most. For example, if you’re forced to work a job that you feel is beneath you, you might feel like you’re suffering more than family members who get the jobs they want. Over time, the effects of burnout accumulate and can take a toll on your mental health.
  • Withdrawal: If you believe you’re having a harder time than your family members and friends, you might assume that others don’t understand you. This can lead to withdrawal. If you’re comparing other people’s suffering to your own without fully understanding other’s experiences, it can significantly change your perception of people and their potential availability to you.
  • Bitterness: If you’re struggling with a sense of failure or depression, it’s healthy to recognize your suffering and admit it rather than dwelling on your perception that others are better off than you. Comparing the success and happiness of others to your own can lead to resentment. Furthermore, in some cases, your perception might not align with reality.

What should you do if you’re struggling with comparative suffering?

Constantly comparing your life experiences to others can make it difficult to express empathy for others and take pride in your own accomplishments. Comparing yourself to others also can detrimentally affect your mental health. This is especially true if you’re struggling with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety disorders. Exploring the following options can help you stop comparing yourself to others:

  • Therapy: Everyone experiences difficult situations in life, and nobody is immune to them. It’s helpful to allow each other—and ourselves—to express feelings that we have. Working with a therapist can help you learn coping strategies, practice empathy, and manage your behavior and response to others.
  • Keep a gratitude journal: Focusing on your suffering and comparing your achievements to others can make it challenging to feel happy or satisfied with your life. Noting small daily achievements, positive experiences, and meaningful interactions can remind you of your successes and help you avoid exclusively focusing on the hard things.
  • Social support: Reaching out to friends and family members can allow you to express your feelings in a safe space and overcome internalized stigma toward your achievements and suffering. When talking to loved ones, don’t try to best one another or react with a story of your own. Instead, aim to create a space for each other to give both of you room to share your issues.
  • Practice self-care: Comparing your suffering to others can lessen your empathy—whether it’s empathy for yourself, others, or both. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, it’s essential to take care of both your mental and physical health.

What should you look for in a therapist?

If you’re struggling with comparing your suffering and accomplishments to others, consider reaching out to a mental health professional listed on the WithTherapy platform. WithTherapy’s unique service will match you with a mental health professional that you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the qualified mental health professionals on the WithTherapy platform can help you to manage your response and behavior and stop comparing yourself to others.

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