From Comparative Suffering to Compassion

Showing Compassion

Let me paint a scene for you. Two friends (let’s call them Carrie and Melissa) are grabbing lunch together and here’s what their conversation sounds like: 

Carrie: You won’t believe what happened in our staff meeting this morning. My boss just handed me a huge project that she wants done by the end of this week. I’ll have to stay late tomorrow night to finish it in time, which means I’m going to miss my daughter’s volleyball game. 

Melissa: You think that’s bad?! You have no idea the stress I’m under right now! I can’t even think about work with everything going on with my mom. It’s looking like we will have to move her into assisted living because I just can’t give her the help she needs right now. 

Carrie: You know I went through that same thing with my dad last year. At least you didn’t have a stack of hospital bills on top of everything.  

Melissa: Yeah, I guess that’s true. Well neither of us has it as bad as Susan. I can’t imagine having to figure all this out for a parent, while also going through a divorce. I guess we should at least be thankful we’re not going through that. 

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation that sounded like this one? Do you know people who frequently one-up your hardships with reasons why their circumstances are harder? Do you dismiss your own hardships with the sentiment that someone else has it worse than you, so you should just suck it up and push through? 

These experiences are a result of comparative suffering. Let’s take a look at what comparative suffering is, how it affects your relationships, and what you can do to move from comparative suffering to compassion in your life. 

What is Comparative Suffering?

Comparative suffering is making sense of your suffering or pain by comparing it to the suffering or pain of others. Comparative suffering can work in two directions—you can assume you have it worse than others, or you can assume that others have it worse than you. The former can result in feelings of judgment and entitlement when others vocalize their struggles. The latter can result in feelings of guilt for complaining about your own circumstances when someone else has it worse. 

Either way, comparative suffering assumes that pain can be measured or ranked against the pain that others are going through. Comparative suffering assumes that pain can be assigned value on a spectrum from least to greatest. While we all fall into the trap of comparative suffering sometimes, there are some serious implications to allowing this comparative lens to be your normal way of navigating through the world. Let’s talk about a couple major effects of comparative suffering. 

Impact of Comparative Suffering

Lack of Empathy 

Comparative suffering and empathy are mutually exclusive. If you are constantly comparing your struggles to the struggles of others, you limit your capacity for empathy. Look at our hypothetical conversation between Carrie and Melissa as an example. Melissa showed no empathy toward Carrie after she shared about her current work stress and how that would mean she’d have to miss her daughter’s volleyball game. Instead, Melissa went right into a statement about how she is under more stress than Carrie because of everything going on with her mother. 

I recently started listening to the Unlocking Us podcast published by world-renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown. Brown started this podcast in the initial height of the Covid-19 pandemic when mass quarantines were newly in effect—a breeding ground for comparative suffering. In episode four of the podcast, Brown says this about comparative suffering, “The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite.” She goes on to explain that we wrongly believe that if we show empathy to someone else or even ourselves, there will be less empathy to go around. Brown argues that empathy is not finite; in fact, when we practice empathy with others or ourselves we actually create more empathy. 

Invalidation or Minimization of Individual Struggles 

Full disclosure, invalidating my own feelings is tough for me too. I’m writing these words for myself as much as I am writing them for you. You may downplay your own struggles because you believe others are facing more significant difficulties. This can result in the invalidation of your own feelings and experiences. The suppression of feelings can lead to deeper mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. This is where the trap of comparative suffering keeps you stuck. Even though your mental health may be worsening, you downplay your struggles and never seek the help you need. 

In our example conversation between Carrie and Melissa, you can see Melissa invalidate her own struggle when she compares her situation to Susan’s. Melissa goes on to say that both she and Carrie should be thankful they aren’t going through a divorce. Not only has Melissa minimized her own feelings and struggles, but now she has also done the same to Carrie. 

Finding ways to unpack and honor your feelings is crucial. You may think that by dismissing your own struggles you are somehow increasing your capacity to care for others. False. It’s through honoring your feelings and exercising self-love that you are able to show up for others in a more meaningful way. 

Moving From Comparative Suffering to Compassion

I want to suggest that the key to addressing comparative suffering in your life is learning to have compassion. While comparison destroys your connection with others, compassion invites you into unparalleled connection and intimacy with others.

Let’s break down the word compassion to get a better idea of the depth of this word. When studied under its Latin origin, the word compassion comes from the latin root pati—which means to suffer—and the latin pre-fix com—which means with. So the word compassion literally means “to suffer with”.

Now you may be asking, what’s the difference between compassion and empathy? While these words are often coupled together, compassion has a distinguishing component which sets it apart from empathy. While empathy describes the ability to understand another person’s pain as if it were your own, compassion involves taking action on the empathy that you feel for the other person. Compassion prompts you to respond with your actions to the suffering of others. Rather than keeping your distance from those who are suffering, compassion moves you to do something. 

Here’s how I see compassion being a combative force against comparative suffering. Compassion helps you gain proper perspective. This doesn’t mean that you dismiss or disregard your feelings, but stepping outside your own circumstances can connect you to the shared experience of human suffering. This means that you are not alone. Suffering is part of being human, and with a proper perspective suffering can actually connect you deeply to the humanity of others. 

Fostering Compassion 

Here are some practical ideas of ways to foster compassion in your life: 

  • Volunteer in Your Community: One of the best ways to suffer with others is to increase your proximity to those who are suffering. Let yourself enter their world and be compassionate with your presence. 
  • Cultivate Gratitude: Take time each day to reflect on the positive aspects of your life and express gratitude. A grateful mindset can shift your focus toward compassion and generosity.
  • Educate Yourself About Others’ Experiences: Read books, watch documentaries, or engage in conversations that expose you to diverse perspectives and experiences. This broadens your understanding and fosters compassion by acknowledging the diversity of humanity. 

A Different Kind of Connection

Here’s an alternative version of Carrie and Melissa’s lunch conversation.  

Carrie: You won’t believe what happened in our staff meeting this morning. My boss just handed me a huge project that she wants done by the end of this week. I’ll have to stay late tomorrow night to finish it in time, which means I’m going to miss my daughter’s volleyball game.

Melissa: That’s disappointing. I know you care about being present for your children’s activities. It’s hard to keep a healthy work-life balance when you get handed projects last-minute. 

Carrie: That’s for sure! How is work going for you? I know you’ve been even busier lately taking care of your mom. 

Melissa: Yeah, things with my mom seem to be worsening each day. I just can’t keep up with taking care of her and still getting everything else done. We’ve been considering assisted living more because I just can’t keep this up. 

Carrie: You sound exhausted. I remember how exhausted I felt when we went through something similar with my dad last year. If you want help getting connected to an assisted living home, I’m happy to connect you with the home where my dad lives. 

Melissa: I would really appreciate that. Just getting some initial information would give me a little relief. You know whose been on my mind lately is Susan. I know how exhausted I am, so I imagine her divorce is only adding to the exhaustion she feels trying to take care of her mom. I wonder how we can support her during this time. 

Did you notice how differently these friends showed up for one another in this version of their conversation? It’s amazing how compassion and empathy can change your capacity for connection with another person, even in the midst of suffering.

*Ginger Hanny, MSW, LSW is a therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling. Ginger enjoys doing individual counseling with adults. She also provides teen and adolescent counseling.  Journey to Joy Counseling serves the Indianapolis area, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.