What is Comparative Suffering?
Whether you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, been hurt, or felt abandoned at one point in your life - the experience of pain and suffering is something we all have in common. A person’s experience of suffering is unique to them, and something that only they will fully understand. Despite this, we will often engage in the curious behaviour of comparing our suffering with those around us.
To put it concretely, comparative suffering is when we view one person’s suffering in the light of another person’s suffering. Once having made the comparison, we will judge one person as being “worse off” or “better off” than another. This is natural to think about, but more often than not, we use this comparison to put ourselves down and deny what we feel. This subtle act of comparison turns into a way we invalidate our own experience, which can actually keep us stuck in a cycle of pain and refusing to reach out for help.
What does it look like?
Here are some of the ways we compare our pain unfavourably with the pain of others:
“I’ve never been through any major trauma like parental abuse or a car accident, so I have no reason to feel hurt.”
“Even though my partner humiliates and controls me, there are other people out there who are being physically abused. I guess I can’t complain.”
“Even though I struggle to get out of bed in the morning, what I’m going through isn’t nearly as hard as ______. I don’t need help.”
“My boss is making me feel unsafe, but at least I have a job. I need to quit being such a baby.”
“I can’t be ‘suffering’ unless I’m lacking money, relationships, health, etc.”
“There are people suffering war crimes right now, I shouldn’t be so upset over my divorce.”
Where does this tendency come from?
Oftentimes, those who were raised in an invalidating environment automatically assume that
what they feel is not substantial, real, or important. This can take the more subtle form of telling a child that big kids don’t cry or as explicit as a family covering up an abusive relationship to protect the abuser. When a child is told repeatedly in words or actions that what they feel is incorrect or unimportant, they will start to accept this as fact and will stop trusting their own feelings. The practice of invalidation gets passed on to them like a downloaded computer program, and they start to use invalidation against themselves automatically.
Another reason we compare suffering is that facing one’s true feelings is a scary,
anxiety-provoking thing to do. If we admit to others how we truly feel, we then may have to
accept our pain is real. Many of us are unequipped to look at how we feel while still remaining upright and getting to work on time. (paying taxes, making lunch for work)
Why even talk about this?
When we don’t give our pain the justice it deserves, it only deepens and perpetuates.
Like any behaviour or action, there is a cost to comparison:
1. A one-way ticket to burnout
Gritting our teeth only works for so long. According to Abraham Maslow, love and
belonging are essential needs to humans, not just icing on the cake. When we
continually deny ourselves the chance to be known by others, we will begin to burn
ourselves out. This process of pushing our feelings down, also known as de-pressing our
emotions, can have emotional, cognitive, and physiological ramifications.
2. Further isolation
Research on attachment shows us that humans are bonding, social creatures by nature,
and the need for secure attachment does not wane through life. Connection with others
actively shapes a person’s neural pathways, how they respond to stress, and the
emotional content of their lives. However, this sense of connection is only felt when we
can be our authentic selves. When we invalidate our pain, we are essentially hiding what
our real experience is. If we continue this pattern, it is only inevitable that we will start to
feel alone and abandoned, which will perpetuate the pain.
3. Hidden resentment
Even if you are comfortable in the role of denying your own needs, there is likely some
part of you that is crying out for care and validation. Studies show that the mind tends to
subdivide into different selves, which we use at different times. For instance, the part of
you that wants to impulsively spend money over the weekend may feel a little different
than the part of you that wants to stick to a budget. In the same way that these parts of
you want different things, there may be a part of you that desperately wants to be seen
and cared for.
4. Diminished compassion for others
If you’re like me, you may have once thought to yourself “I’ll be ruthlessly hard on myself
and simultaneously go easy on others”, or something to that effect. You might not even
realize this is how you operate. However, this type of selective mutism just isn’t reality. If
you diminish your compassion toward yourself, you will have less compassion for others.
“To fully relate to another, one must first relate to oneself.” --Dr. Irvin Yalom
How Can We Stop Comparing?
If only it were easy enough to just stop. The more realistic answer, yet still somehow just as
simple, is empathy.
Comparing suffering is the opposite of empathy. When we witness the pain of another, we are offered a chance to be touched deeply and to respond with compassion and care. When we jump quickly to comparison, we are missing that opportunity and instead going into judgment. Whether you are on the receiving end of that judgment or the other person is, the end result is disconnection.
Comparing suffering is the sign of a scarcity mindset. It essentially says “There’s only so much empathy to go around in the world. There’s a fixed amount of care and compassion that I can give. So who deserves it most?” The truth is that empathy and compassion are not finite resources. Like love, the more you extend it, the more of it you will find. This includes what love and compassion you extend toward yourself.
Give permission to yourself and others to own the pain you individually carry. Just because
someone else’s pain is more “visible” than yours, it doesn’t make it more or less significant.
“Hurt is hurt, and every time we honour our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us." -Brené Brown
A few steps from a recovering comparer:
Name where you are right now. Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Siegel recommends using the “Name it to tame it” exercise in order to calm down and find balance. Naming emotions when they come up connects the right and left brain hemispheres and allows more space for regulation.
Allow yourself permission to consider the possibility that what you feel is real and valid.
When you experience a moment of suffering (or many, continuous moments), consider reaching out to someone safe who will be able to hear you.
If the thought arises that says “What you feel isn’t important/real/valid.”, question that voice. Whose voice is that?
A counsellor can help you make sense of the automatic program you use to compare suffering. A system reboot may be possible. And you might be surprised at how good it feels to be earnestly validated.
Brown, B. (2020). Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth, and Settling the Ball. (2020, March).
Unlocking Us with Brene Brown. episode. Retrieved from
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with
individuals, couples, and families. The Guilford Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being: 2d ed. D Van Nostrand.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Robinson.
Sittser, G. L. (2022). A Grace disguised: How the soul grows through loss. Zondervan.
Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books.