Why Comparing Our Pain Isn't Useful.

I've noticed a lot of pain-shaming on social media lately. The whole "what you went through wasn't as bad as what I went through", or "you shouldn't complain, I know someone who had it FAR worse than you do", or even "as an expert on this issue, and because what I went through was tougher than what you're facing, I think you should do this or that", or "you can't speak to your pain, I find it offensive because so many people have it worse, including me"  or even, "this group of people 'deserves' to go through pain because this OTHER group of people have also suffered and it was worse." 

It had me questioning the usefulness of making these assertions; what the motives behind making these statements might be. 

I realized that the intentions behind the comparisons of pain likely had to do with the fact that people don't feel recognized for their own suffering, and thusly have a hard time listening to/hearing about others who are attempting to speak to their pain. For anyone who has gone through some form of trauma, you can likely attest to the fact that often, your ability to speak to it has likely been silenced in some way by the community. Pain-shaming also seems like an attempt to "control" suffering... Like as if we had a "factual" spectrum of suffering, we could have a better understanding of it; by that logic someone who has been through a level 10 of pain can talk about it/gain empathy from others for X amount of weeks (and remember, there are limits!), and level 1's shouldn't even mention whatever they're whining about. 

Well. Quite frankly, that doesn't work. 

When we compare pain, either our own with others' or even when we compare cultural suffering, we are missing a very valuable opportunity: the chance to practice empathy, to practice community.  

Another interesting side of the pain-shaming coin is that people sometimes feel guilt for speaking to (or sometimes, even experiencing at all) the pain they might have felt during an event when speaking with someone who they know went through something "worse". I've experienced this personally many times because my son passed away due to his premature birth, and many think that it's then inappropriate to talk about how traumatized they feel about their baby's two week NICU stay that didn't result in any long-term medical consequences. It isn't inappropriate; in fact, there's beauty in sharing your experience, there's connection. 

We are all allowed to feel what we feel, and what's more, we WILL feel what we feel whether we talk about it or not. In my opinion the height of dysfunction exists when the expectations of a community, the "shoulds", override the personal experience of its members.  It pushes people to cope silently; it pushes people to feel alone; it pushes people to feel like they're being "histrionic" (another word I can't stand!) for feeling anything at all. 

I want to clarify here that I am not claiming that all pain is the same,  I'm not saying that the pain of a breakup is equal to that of the loss of a child, or that the pain of losing your home to foreclosure in the U.S. is equal to that of being forced to migrate out of your country to avoid your family being tortured, leaving everything you love behind. It's not equal. Particularly when other people's pain has been communicated by someone who hasn't experienced it themselves. I also want to clarify that I'm not trying to say that it's ok when certain types of pain are silenced, particularly cultural pain (i.e. one country's/individual's struggle is honored and respected but another's isn't acknowledged at all due to privilege). 

I do, however, question the usefulness of comparison, and suggest that instead of trying to mitigate some sort of a structure by which we decide who we allow to speak to their experience, we look at the value of honoring people's pain, allowing people to speak to it, and using it as an entry point for understanding what other people's experiences might be, and as a global community, to change the things that promote suffering.

The other piece of this is that by acknowledging and respecting others' suffering, we free ourselves to feel our own-- without shame, without guilt, without accusing others of being primadonnas because we never had the chance to have compassion for ourselves when we went through something terrible. With the growth of self-compassion comes a sense of community, of having a more untainted perception of the experience of others, of feeling loved and seen, of not being shuffled aside as unimportant. 

No one benefits from shame and silence.  Giving voice to your experience may be just the thing that helps someone else feel less shame in reaching out for help, and help them to fathom a way of creating something with their suffering that connects them to others, as well as gives them a sense of agency over it themselves. 

As Pema Chodron wrote in her beautiful book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."

In conclusion, try not to pain-shame. It doesn't solve anything at hand, it only drives a deeper stake into our ability to understand each other. 

For further (and a beautifully written) explanation of the value of having empathy for others' suffering, and acknowledging your own as well, the speech This Is Water by David Foster Wallace is incredibly moving, and worth the 20 minutes of listening.