Whose Pain Is Bigger?

Life is full, FULL, FULL of pain! Life hurts. A lot.

But that’s okay.

And it has to be okay. It has to be normal. We walk from problem to problem with the hope of turning our current problems into better ones in the future, not with the hope of creating a problem-less life.

Everyone hurts, and it’s true that some lives hurt worse than others. However, playing “whose pain is greater” only fosters a lack of empathy.

My husband had an abusive childhood and thoroughly nightmarish upbringing. He has revealed more about it, little by little, over the past seven years. I’ve had many close friends who were willing to share their darkest traumas with me, and no one’s story holds a candle to my husband’s. For the sake of his privacy, I’m not going into detail, but trust me when I say that “nightmarish” is the most appropriate word, if a nightmare can last 18 years.

My husband does not complain about his misfortune. He acknowledges it and takes ownership of it. He knows he’s fully responsible for his reaction to his trauma, even though he now has severe C-PTSD and the trauma itself was not his fault. Part of the response he has chosen is to not play “whose pain is bigger?” with other people’s horrible childhood stories. It would be easy for him to gain a quick emotional high by claiming that he was hurt worse, and therefore deserves more pity. In fact, the superiority high a person gets by playing “whose pain is bigger?” is usually the reason people play it in the first place. It feels good to feel superior, and saying “my pain is bigger than yours, so mine is more important” is a quick and easy way to get that superior feeling.

Some pain is bigger than others. But as humans, this knowledge does us no good. It harms us by robbing us of our empathy. My husband has to consciously work to be empathetic to others because, whether he wants to or not, he knows his childhood was worse than most. His saving grace is in knowing that comparing and quantifying suffering will preemptively end any empathy he’d be capable of in the first place. So, he tries to be self-aware enough to reiterate in his own mind the idea that he is choosing to listen and respond compassionately instead of letting himself ride the high of superiority-through-suffering. Even though he must internally acknowledge that his pain is bigger (because it usually is), he knows that’s not an excuse for him to be an asshole to someone else, especially a person who is being brave enough to share their pain with him.

I was never abused. I still turned out to be an extremely mentally and emotionally abnormal adult (and I know “abnormal” is not a PC word to use, but this is me identifying myself as I see appropriate- don’t yuck my yum). Statistically, among other mentally ill people, my case is more severe than most. However, if I decide that my pain is more important than yours, I will withhold my empathy for you and will treat you without compassion. This response comes from the same place as someone telling you to “snap out of it,” “just get over yourself,” or “don’t be a baby.” I think most people with mental illness would agree that those three things are horrible, terrible things to say to a person who is admitting to the pain in their life. They are cold, heartless, mean things to say. Most of us know how badly it hurts to hear them. However, even people with mental illness can still become shortsighted when we compare our pain to others’. We feel superior in our suffering, and since we enjoy that feeling, we allow ourselves to treat others poorly because of it.

If the quantity of suffering determined the worth of a person’s problem (it does not), we would all just move through the world as if we were better, more unique, more victimized, or more deserving than anyone who has not had our problems. The real issue here is…

I see this all the time.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t speak honestly about your pain. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t complain. I’m saying stop comparing your life to anyone else’s, especially when it comes to your struggle.

As I said before, life hurts a lot.

It is supposed to hurt, you are supposed to struggle, and you need to continue to be compassionate while you, personally, are actively hurting and struggling. Because everyone else is hurting and struggling, too, and no two struggles are equal when quantified. If you expect people to listen to you without judgment when you express your pain, you owe it to them and your own humanity to listen with equal compassion.

It doesn’t matter who hurts worse. Everyone should measure themselves by how closely their behavior aligns with their own values instead of measuring themselves against another person. The measure of success is unique to each human on the planet. The measure of pain is equally unique. 100% of what I can feel before breaking may be 30% for you (way easier) and 500% for someone else (deadly). So even if you suspect that you were hurt more than someone else, it does you no good to assume a position of superior suffering.

Empathy is the greatest tool we have for improving humanity. Unbridled empathy could solve homelessness, healthcare, war, poverty, famine, and global warming. Unfortunately, we tragically lack enough empathy worldwide to solve these problems on a macro scale. We are, in so many areas in our lives, only capable of making a difference on a micro scale; we can only influence those close to us. For this reason, you should actively exercise empathy as much and as often as possible. Your difference in the world will be seen most in the people around you.

I know you hurt because we all hurt. I hear your pain and your struggle, and I want you to know that your pain is valid. Just promise, promise, you’ll remember that everyone else’s pain is valid, too.

Thoughts? I will listen.