Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ranking the Pain

Sometimes, when I am in a particularly bad spot of physical, emotional, and/or mental pain, someone inevitably feels the need to tell me, "Think about all the people that have it worse than you," with the best intentions of thinking it will make me feel more grateful for my situation. It does not.

Comparison is never a good method for dealing with sorrow. Ever.

It has always struck me as odd that people will simultaneously tell you not to envy those who have it better than you and also to feel better off than those who have it worse. Especially because comparing your situation to others will never change the actual event you are experiencing. It might alter your perspective of it, ever so slightly, but the outcome of that alteration is mixed and ignores the heart of the issue. That you're in pain.

A good story that illustrates the fallacy of this method is the analogy of a soldier. As a group of soldiers are being transported, a man and his comrades are caught in an explosion. People have rushed to their aid. The man has lost both his legs. To comfort him, someone says, "Just be grateful it's only your legs--the man in the front of the jeep is dying." Does this give the man back his legs? Make the situation better? Help the man who is dying? All it really does is invalidate the pain this man is experiencing from having his legs blown off! In regards to his pain, it really does not matter what any one else is experiencing.

This is not something than only 'others' do. We do it ourselves. We feel guilty for feeling bad about something when we 'know someone else has it worse'. I had a good friend who would tell me about the stresses and bad events in her life, and would always finish off with, "I know it's not as bad as what you go through...". I would always need to remind her that nothing I am going through invalidates her experiences. She had every right to feel frustrated with her situation. But she had been taught to look at things as comparisons rather than individual events, and it created anxiety and invalidation even within herself. And for our friendship, it made it difficult for me to be a support because she would feel guilty telling me her struggles. Eventually, it got better, but it pained me that somehow she had learned that pain was a ranking game, not something to just be addressed and helped.

When people try to rank suffering and pain, they're taking the focus off the individual(s) who is(are) suffering and focusing it on the comparison. Rather than helping either person(s), it's invalidating their experiences and ignoring how they feel about it. Attempting to even rank pain is flawed in the first place, as we never truly know what someone else is experiencing and cannot truly say whose experience is worse. We'll never know enough about others to rank anyone's suffering but our own (and only compared to our own experiences--those are the only ones we can fully know). It would be pretty brazen of me to think I have it better (or worse) than someone when I really do not know how they have it at all, do I?

For all these reasons and more, it rubs me the wrong way when people offer 'comfort' in the form of these comparisons. Intentional or not, it dismisses the event I am going through and makes me uncomfortable. It is said as an offer of solace, but it does nothing to change my pain and feels ridiculously invalidating. It takes trust and security for people to share pain with others--it should not be dismissed as inconsequential for any reason. And it teaches those who are suffering that the rank is more important than the pain.

I am fairly certain that the people who take the time to read my blog are not the sort to dismiss the pain of others, intentionally or not. I am more likely to be concerned with my readers consciously or unconsciously doing this to themselves. No, this post is not a manual for 'How not to Invalidate and Drive Away your Friends, Part II". My true intention is to share my understanding for the frustration of being ranked and dismissed and to let you know that you are neither alone or wrong to feel belittled by statements like these.

When someone (or my own head) does say things like this to me, my responses generally include aspects of the following list:


  1. Comparing myself to others to feel grateful is usually a bad strategy because I am surrounded by more healthy than unhealthy people in my everyday life. If I depend on others to validate my feelings, I'll eventually become very jealous of the people I interact with and become unhappy and isolated. It's better for me not to compare my situation to others. 
  2. While I feel for those who are suffering, it does not help any of us to try and decide who has it worse. Especially because I do not fully know their experiences, just as no one else fully knows mine. I would rather focus on helping myself and others, rather than defining experiences that I do not truly understand. 
  3. My situation and how I feel about it does not really have anything to do with others--please do not dismiss how I am feeling right now.
  4. Smile, nod, and excuse myself from the situation. Some people will never understand why they have put you off or are not going to respond well to contradiction. It's better to just feel secure in knowing why they are wrong to offer such advice and know that it's okay for them to feel differently than you do about it. Do not waste energy feeling angry at people who do not understand!

Last, this post is not some veiled guide to feeling secure in selfishness. I am not advocating that those who are suffering do not ever need to think of anyone but themselves. This is a statement of validation. That you are allowed to feel frustrated and hurt by what you are going through, without worrying about other's experiences. Personally, I think that by truly experiencing pain, we become more empathetic and more capable of helping and understanding others who are suffering. Continue to help others and to not focus too much on the bad things in your life. But that does not mean you do not have the right to acknowledge the pain in your experiences. 

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About The BedRiddenHead

I want to be happy. And this site is about that chance. How to strive to thrive in the body I've got and maybe turn my experiences into something worthwhile.

This site aims to help educate and reach out to people all over that struggle with pain or illness. To try and make something helpful. I work as a medical research writer, my background is in neuropsychology and biology, and I want to share what I learn in a way that is easy to understand. I am not a doctor. I'm definitely not your doctor. I am just some lady who wants to make someone's (anyone's) life a little bit better. Whether you have endometriosis, a chronic injury, a struggling friend, or just want to learn something new, I hope to make a place that has what you are looking for.

Thank you for stopping by, I wish you strength in your health and happiness.