Hurt is Hurt: Why Do People Compare Pain and Struggles?

We frequently cite the ancient proverb, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met the man who had no feet,” to introduce the dangerous issue of comparison as it relates to grievous pain and struggles.

Sometimes, especially when we are trying to teach young children about painful situations in life, we might say something like this to help them understand the relativity of their pain. Not every "owie needs a bandaid." At times it is important for people to understand that there is always someone who has it better, but there is always someone worse. But comparing your pain to someone else's pain is dangerous and can lead to extremely hurt feelings. Who are we to judge how someone else should be feeling?  

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I lead a fertility support group and sharing pain and our struggles is a topic that we talk about at every meeting. It's natural to vent and let deep and intimate feelings out. A support group is a place where we should feel safe and comfortable, and most people, after awhile, will begin to open up and share their innermost feelings about their fertility pain.

But somehow, someway, the comparison of pain often is brought up at meetings, too. Most of the time, people aren't even aware that they are comparing pain. Many times group participants will share something that an outsider (a family member, co-worker or friend) said that was especially hurtful. For example, "You want kids?  Take mine! I'd love to be in your shoes and have a break from the insanity of raising kids." Or they might chime in with an "at least you" comment. "At least you and your husband can go on a vacation. We cannot afford to go anywhere because our kids are so expensive." (Now that's a REAL joke! Try paying for IUI or IVF and you'll see what expensive is!)

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Sometimes people compare their own pain to someone else's thinking that they feel fortunate that life isn't so bad for them. For example, "I have no right to complain. I already have a step child that I love like my own. My situation can't be a bad as Joni's. She and her husband have no kids to love." By comparing your pain to someone else's pain, you negate the fact that your pain is real. Diminishing your own pain is not a healthy route to take. It is a form of negative self talk. In other words you are telling yourself that feeling the pain of not having your own biological child is not a worthy pain. What you are doing is sweeping your own feelings under the carpet instead of realizing that you hurt and your feelings matter. 

When comparing your pain in a fertility support group to someone else's pain, it can be especially hurtful. For example, if someone in the group has suffered a miscarriage and you would just love to get a positive pregnancy test, it is not a good idea to say something like, "Well, at least you can get pregnant. It must be nice to know that. I can't get pregnant no matter what we try." Making a comparison comment like that is really telling the person, in the midst of their grief, to buck up. Their pain is not as important as your pain. 

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And why do we compare pain anyway? I have a couple of thoughts on this. Sometimes when we are listening to someone, we are trying to relate to them. We are picturing ourselves in their shoes. When there is a disconnect because we haven't been in their shoes, or we would LOVE to at least be in their shoes, we start to compare. We feel we need to make some kind of comment. It is at that moment in time we need to stop ourselves. We need to ask ourselves, is a comment warranted?  Or can I just listen? Perhaps when we feel we must say something, we can simply say, "I can't imagine what you are going through. That must be so hard. I am here for you if you would like to talk." These type of empathetic responses are supportive and validating instead of belittling, dismissive and hurtful. They are all more respectful than spewing another... "at least you" comment.

In a recent article I read on grieving, I learned that grief and pain is experienced at 100%. There are no exceptions. No one can say their grief is bigger or smaller than yours, or that their situation was better (or worse) than yours. When you look at it that way, you can see how dangerous and wrong comparison is. When we compare our pain, it automatically robs dignity from the person who’s made to feel as if their loss isn’t as big, for whatever reason. It also negates the basic truth that all grief is experienced at 100%. Since all pain is unique and so is each person’s grief.

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There is no hierarchy of pain that can accurately say that a particular loss is worse than all others, especially if you start with the premise that all grief is experienced at 100%. It relates only to how you process your feelings, and to the nature and meaning of your one-of-a-kind painful circumstances on your fertility journey.

The moment your personal pain is elevated to being the “worst,” it minimizes or negates everyone else’s. If yours is worse than mine, then am I not entitled to feel that 100% grief. Maybe it might not last as long as your pain. Maybe it might not be experienced at the same level of emotional intensity. But is my grief and pain any less? Are my feelings unimportant?

So the next time we feel the urge to compare our pain, I hope we can pause, reflect on this blog post and realize that sometimes the best thing to say is simply, "I'm sorry." 

In-Fertility & Friendship,