Now Is Not The Time For Comparative Suffering


Normally I wouldn’t post an article on a Friday night. Normally, I’d be with girlfriends or out for dinner or with flatmates, and you’d be doing the same. But the word “Friday” is almost completely devoid of meaning at this point. So here we are. 

I learnt about “comparative suffering” before I even knew it had a name. I was on my 637th Zoom call this week and one of my girlfriends (I’ll call her Kate) was lamenting herself for feeling “overwhelmed”. Kate is the mother of three young children, with a husband who works in essential services and is therefore still required to go to work everyday. She’s feeling bogged down by the weight of expectation to be a good parent, provider and now a *goddamn school teacher* between the hours of 8am and 5pm, five days a week. But Kate said she feels shame about her feelings, because she knows there are people who have it much worse than her – Kate has a roof over her head, a loving husband, and a healthy family, and has therefore decided that those things disqualify her from complaining. 

Brené Brown spoke about comparative suffering on a recent episode of her Unlocking Us podcast, and she was speaking about it in direct relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. She explained that every single one of us is operating from a place of fear and scarcity right now. Scarcity is “the first cousin of fear”, and you only have to spend a little time at a supermarket to see it in action. Scarcity tells us: I don’t have enough. What if I never have enough? How can I get enough? And one of the things that is triggered when we do all our thinking from this place is comparative suffering, Brown says that when this happens, “Even our pain and hurt are not immune from being assessed and ranked. Without thinking, we begin to rank our suffering and use it to deny ourselves permission to feel.” Kate had assessed her suffering and decided that it didn’t rank high enough on the board and therefore she wasn’t allowed to feel the way she felt. Period.

This is common among a lot of us right now:

“I can’t be sad that I won’t get my graduation ceremony because I know someone who just lost their job.”

“I can’t be angry at my kids for pushing my limits because I know someone who just had a miscarriage.”

“I can’t be fearful about getting the virus because I know someone working in the ICU.” 

“It’s not appropriate for me to be frustrated at my husband when I know someone who has abuse in their home.” 

“I shouldn’t be exhausted – I’m not one of the doctors or nurses on the front line.”

Brown believes that comparative suffering is born from the myth that empathy is a finite resource – convincing ourselves that each of us only have a limited amount of empathy stored away, so if we’re too kind or gentle toward ourselves, if we give ourselves permission to feel sad or angry too often, then we will have less empathy to give to those who really need it. The people on the front lines. The supermarket workers. The elderly neighbours and grandparents. The friend who just lost her job. Those who are immune-compromised. 

But that’s not how empathy works: It isn’t toilet paper at the supermarket. If you stockpile empathy for yourself it doesn’t mean there will be none left for the person behind you. In fact, when we cultivate an inner dialogue of grace and forgiveness, we’re better equipped to love and support those around us.  So it has to start with us. With you. With Kate.  

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