“My dad is stronger than your dad.”
“My dress is more beautiful than your dress.”
“You think that’s bad, guess what happened to me?”
What is it inside us that tempts us to compare? It often seems like an automatic response. Why do we do this? Could it be that we are trying to figure out where we are in the pecking order? Could it be that we are desperately trying to matter, to be seen, to be acknowledged?
It is one thing to compare wins or strengths, but many people tend to compare loss and suffering as well. As soon as someone mentions their pain or discomfort, we try to weigh it in terms of our own experiences. It’s as if we are trying to assess how significant their experience really is and the only benchmark we have is to compare it to the worst thing that has happened to us. If we perceive their pain to be more intense than what we have experienced, we extend compassion. If their pain satisfies our “pain gauge”, we are willing to give them the empathy and support they need. If, however, we perceive their pain to be less intense than ours, we struggle to offer the empathy and support they need. Comparison. It’s back. “Well, you think that’s bad. One time I…” It is extremely important to become aware of this tendency in ourselves.
If I bump my toe and you slam your finger in the car door, who will be the judge of who feels more intense pain? Could it be that both of us need support, empathy, and compassion? Do I have to go on a campaign to advocate that bumping toes are more significant than slamming fingers in doors, or is it possible to acknowledge, to fully engage with you when your finger hurts, because I know that you will fully engage and empathize with me when my toe hurts.
I have made this mistake. In the early years, just after my divorce I was experiencing financial challenges. I was in survival mode and was easily triggered. During that phase of my life I would get terribly angry if people who were not experiencing financial challenges as bad as mine (so I assumed) would tell me how much they were struggling as the result of a different loss or overwhelming situation. I judged their loss according to my standard of what “real” suffering and loss was. It is so easy to do. Subsequently I have come to understand that loss is loss is loss. We can not compare loss. It just doesn’t work!! While it might be true that someone has more support of more resources available to them through their process, it is not helpful to determine on behalf of another whether their suffering is valid.
How can we do better?
The next time someone tells you that they are hurting, DO NOT TRY TO PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES, because you cannot…you are not them. Ask them to tell you their story. DO NOT COMPARE their story to yours. Listen with your heart and not your head. Do not make any value judgements about their experience or its severity. Reflect to them what you hear them saying. Refrain from giving advice. This is the biggest gift you can offer to an overwhelmed, grieving person.
By Karin Grobler, Integer Network Coach & Therapist