“At Least I Have a Roof Over My Head” – Is Comparing Your Suffering Actually Useful?

Sitting on a soft carpet warmed by sunlight coming through large windows that boasted a cloudless blue sky, I took a bite of my fresh strawberry and peanut butter toast. Taking another bite of my privilege, I started to label myself much more in that way – privileged.

What a luxury to have during this time. Why do I still feel lost and depressed sometimes even though I have a full pantry and hot water running? People are trying to feed themselves… I should be more grateful.

Have you also found yourself thinking this way lately, comparing your suffering to others?

Whether it’s, “I feel so alone, but I shouldn’t complain, I haven’t lost any family members during this pandemic.”

Or, “I’m devastated that I’ve lost my job and purpose. I shouldn’t be upset though, at least I have a roof over my head”?

These are all examples of comparative suffering, which makes us think of suffering as a competition. It may seem to be useful in feeling grateful for what we have, but this way of thinking can actually worsen our situation. Viewing your emotional pain relative to others’ can invalidate your suffering. It can also lead to suppressing your emotions, which is like “pressing on the gas and brakes of your car at the same time”. Emotion suppression can result in depression and anxiety as well as physical illness including stomach pain, headaches, insomnia, and heart disease.

By forcing yourself to only feel happy by focusing on what you have (that other people don’t) doesn’t allow space for you to work on your struggles. Even if you’re initially satisfied by comparing your hardships to others, this feeling is always short-lived because your problems will come back to confront you. Ideally, you want to address them by seeking help and developing healthy behaviors to improve your mental well-being.

Some other negative impacts of comparative suffering include…

Making false judgments about others

  • Assuming that others have a better life than you is just your perception and not always the truth. For example, Elon Musk was filing for divorce while his record-breaking Tesla 3 launch occurred and Steve Jobs was on his deathbed when planning out the next several years of Apple. Everyone endures hardship, so no one has it easy!

Persistently feeling low

  • Seeing yourself as having it worse than others can lead to wallowing in self-pity instead of being inspired to improve the situation

Harming your relationships with others

  • If you perceive your problems as worse than others and assume that they may not understand you, you can unintentionally distance yourself from them. Your family members and friends don’t intend to hurt you with their achievements or joyful moments. They care about you, hoping that your situation turns around right alongside you!

Making it harder for you to empathize with those with “less” suffering

  • Seeing your problems as worse than others may lead you to see their struggles as insignificant. Your friends in pain may feel scared opening up to you, which closes off your opportunities to be empathetic to others. This can hinder your relationships and personal growth
  • Dismissing one’s struggles and withholding compassion may not enable your friend to have the social support and opportunity for introspection that they need

So, while comparative suffering may seem like a beneficial pattern of thinking, it can actually hurt others while creating shame and guilt for yourself.

Now, here are some feelings that I’ve had during this time…

After an overwhelming mission of evacuating Ithaca (a foresty, waterfall town in New York State), where I felt at home for the past years, my boyfriend and I arrived to New Zealand’s mandatory 14-days of self-isolation after 3 flights in 2 days. It was filled with laughter and genuine gratitude along with pain and confusion. As we neared the end of our journey indoors, my excitement to burst out the doors, swallow the ocean air and inhale restaurant-made burgers had accumulated greatly, only to be met with the announcement of a 1-month nationwide lockdown (honestly great work NZ Government).

Already worn down, I started to feel the most unmotivated I had ever felt in my entire life. I barely moved my body and wanted to do so much yet absolutely nothing at the same time. Lacking purpose and social interaction were so taxing for me that I felt insecure and displaced in the country I was born in after unwillingly leaving my American life. In an attempt to navigate my sorrows, I started depending on what had been normalized to us all throughout our lives – comparative suffering.

As we know based on what we’ve just learned about comparing ourselves to others, it didn’t help. However, ever since I’ve sat with the reality that times are uncertain right now for us all and empathized with myself, I’ve navigated my hardships without guiltily seeking gratitude. I’ve accepted myself by affirming that it’s okay for me to feel everything that I feel. I’ve also embraced my difficult emotions as opportunities to confront deep-rooted insecurities that I’ve probably always had but were masked by my daily life routine.

I now aim to focus on restarting my life in New Zealand with the help of therapy and group meditation. Home is a feeling not a place, so I believe that I can feel this way anywhere I go.

In conclusion…

We need to be kinder to ourselves in order to be kinder to others. Burying feelings because we perceive others to have it harder or easier than us won’t make them disappear. We deserve the heightened appreciation that we have for the times that we feel good, which we might not have had before when life supposedly was good more often. We also deserve to learn and grow vastly from the pain that we experience.

So in the meantime, take another bite of that toast that makes you feel good in the moment. Embrace the contentment and solitude as much as you can also embrace the despair and pain, because we need all of it for the complete human experience.

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