The Dangerous World of Comparative Thinking
All of us have faced adversity in our lives. Whether it’s the death of someone close to us, a battle with a disease, bullying, or anything else, we all know what it’s like on some level to go through something difficult.
The thing is, we’re all special snowflakes here, so the problems we face are different. And even if they’re really similar, they’re still different because we as human beings experience emotion differently. The way you cope with the death of a family member may be entirely different than the way your best friend does.
And when people are facing hardships, it’s hard to know what to say. But here’s one thing I would actively advise not saying to someone going through a tough time:
“It could be worse.”
It could be worse is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to attempting to “comfort” someone. Of course it could be worse! A bomb could drop and kill all of us except the cockroaches! Paris Hilton could decide to start releasing music again! It could always be worse! You might as well say “the sky is blue” for all the new profound light you’re shedding on the situation.
Which is why I firmly believe “it could be worse” is a lazy thing to say–– you’re not empathizing, you’re just making the person feel guiltier for the emotions they’re experiencing. That person might now think “Yeah, it could be worse. So why do I still feel so shitty?” This just leads to a whirlwind of guilt over how we should feel versus how we actually feel. See? Not helpful.
I’m also guilty of thinking “it could be worse” in my own mind when I’m having a tough pain day or life just feels like a bit too much. You think it might make you feel better to put your problems in perspective–– like, at least my life is probably better than Jeb Bush’s? But comparing the hardships in your life to someone else’s doesn’t make your chronic joint pain go away. It doesn’t make your financial troubles disappear. It doesn’t bring anyone back from the dead.
So maybe next time you’re thinking of your own problems in comparison to others, do what Joey from Full House would want you to do and cut it out. Berating yourself for your emotions because someone else out there has it worse is not only silly and counterproductive, it’s potentially just bad for your own mental health. Life is not the Olympics of Suffering, and you don’t get a medal for having the worst problems of all, so maybe just let your problems exist as they are and don’t try to categorize or rank them.
And when it comes to chronic illness, it’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to feel like it’s not fair. It’s okay to feel like your bad day is bad, even if someone else’s bad day is worse. Sometimes the most cathartic thing we can do for ourselves is feeling what we feel, when we feel it, without piling on the guilt. And if you really need to think about someone having it worse than you to help you feel better, remember that men with really long ponytails exist. It usually helps.