Comparative Suffering

Since I’m in a fortunate and at the same time unfortunate position of being unemployed during a global pandemic, I have had a lot of time for self-reflection. And I’ve been capitalizing on that every single day. I’m aware that this state of individual freedom within our global restraints can change at any moment so I’m determined to make the most of it. I spend a lot of time meditating, writing and listening to podcasts. I’m finding that each of these practices is awakening in me a voice that I’ve always known was there but has always struggled for the language to express itself. Today was a prime example; I listened to Brené Brown’s podcast on comparative suffering.

If you struggle or have struggled in your life (who hasn’t?); or if you have experienced loss, shame, anxiety, hurt, disappointment, displacement in your life… Or maybe you are, especially now, feeling challenged with what you have, what you have lost or what you miss, I REALLY highly recommend you take some time to listen to this particular podcast.

Brené Brown

For those of you (I’m guessing you might be out there) who do not know who Brené Brown is, she is a research professor at the University of Houston as well as visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at the Austin McCombs School of Business. Brené has spent decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy and is the author of five #1 New York Time bestsellers. For me, she has given words to so many of the struggles and fears I have grappled with my entire life. I feel she knows me and knows anyone who has faced challenges in any of these areas.

Which brings me to the podcast I listened to today, originally broadcast almost a year ago. I think the fact that I just stumbled upon this broadcast today is proof positive that we receive messages when we are capable of taking them in. I’m not sure how I would have heard this message a year ago, so much has changed since then including me.

What is Comparative Suffering?

In the podcast, Brené speaks about comparative suffering, a term I had never heard before today. To capsulize it into a teeny tiny snip that doesn’t do the concept justice, comparative suffering is ranking your own challenges, worries or suffering against those of others, whether you know them or not.  For example, I have often thought, and even wrote about how, despite the fact that this is an extraordinarily challenging time for me personally now, I’m lucky because at least I have a roof over my head. I want for nothing physical; I am with a partner I love. We are healthy and so is everyone in our blended family. I shouldn’t feel loss, sorrow or grief because so many others have it so much worse than I do.

That is comparative suffering and what it presumes is that empathy is finite. If I use some of my empathy for me, I won’t have enough to give all the other people out there who may need it. It forces me to stuff down those feelings, even if it’s just a little bit and what I’ve always known to be true… any time you stuff feelings down, they come out. They come out eventually and often it’s in really painful ways at really unfortunate times. Maybe they come out as depression, substance abuse, self-harm or aggression. But they come out.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

What struck me most about this concept is how deeply I’ve subscribed to it and for how long. My girlfriends know, and we have often joked about the fact that I love a grief-ridden book. The more tragic a story, the more I will love it. I read it voraciously and the entire time, this is what I’m thinking:

“Wow. See? Your life as a child and young adult wasn’t anywhere near this bad! You actually had it pretty good; you should be grateful.”

For years, I’ve been telling myself that narrative. Late at night in those quiet moments that the darkness of my past visits my present. When I’m in the middle of a struggle against the worries, fears, obstacles of the day. When I’ve been in my loneliest, saddest places. That is the narrative I’ve told myself. It’s not so bad; others have it way worse.

All this time, I thought I was doing this to save myself, protect myself. Give myself the resilience I needed to move beyond the hurt that consumed me for so long. But all I was doing was silencing it. Shoving it aside.

That ends today. Part of finding my voice over these past few months, now includes the recognition that I need to give myself the same empathy I provide others. Without that, I will never fully heal and my voice will be, forever, hushed. Not silenced; just not completely true.

“Love is the last thing we need to ration right now. Comparative suffering is dangerous. Empathy is not finite. When we practice empathy, we create more empathy. The exhausted ER doctor doesn’t benefit more if you reserve your empathy only for her and ignore your feelings or withhold empathy from someone lower on the ‘suffering scale’

Hurt is hurt and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy, the healing that results affects all of us”

Brené Brown

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