Do we dare to compare our scars or our pain? Is it measuring contest? Do you have a ruler or should I find one? We can whip it out right here if that will make you feel better. On the count of three? One…Two…Hold up, this is just silly! Do we really have to do this now? Do we have to do it at all?
Can you zip that up, please? I was speaking metaphorically and now everyone’s staring!
People often say to me, “Well, I mean, it’s nothing compared to what you’ve been through.” They apologize for “complaining” about their life and, once again, draw parallels between their struggles and mine. In an instant, it becomes a pissing contest, and they feel like they can’t measure up to my story. Worse, they feel like they can’t share their story with me because theirs isn’t worth sharing.
Perhaps, if we’re making a blow by blow comparison then okay? I guess? Maybe? No, sorry, I’m squinting but I still don’t see how this contest plays out. How do we run the measurements? Duct tape. Hopscotch. Yardstick. Who gets points for what? Do we just have to stick the landing or are there points for style? Oh, and you know there’s going to be that one judge who just has to be contrary. Who gives a score of 3.263? It’s so random!
It’s just about as random as that analogy.
Do you really want to go through with this comparison? I’m not asking to be cocky or to brag. This isn’t an ego trip for me. I’m asking a very genuine question: Why are you comparing your struggles and pain, to mine? What does it accomplish? Do we really have to go there because it won’t end well for either of us? Neither one of us will feel like doing a victory lap because there are no winners in this game. There will be two people, sitting in awkward silence, because this kind of competition breeds division, not unity.
When someone makes the comparison, I have a lot of questions! Such as: So what? What does it matter? Why is my pain more valid than yours? What makes my struggles special or more deserving of sympathy, empathy, and compassion? What is it about your story that makes yours worth less than mine? Why do you feel like you have to make the comparison at all?
Is it a matter of self-worth? Self-doubt? Insecurities? Or, is it self-deprecation for the sake of humility? Do you think I’ll think less of you for speaking up? I won’t. Spoiler alert! I don’t think less of anyone for telling their story. It takes courage and strength. Believe me, I know how hard it is to open your heart up so I’ll celebrate you for it. I won’t criticize you and I won’t draw the comparisons. So why are you?
You’re right, I’ve been through a lot and, if we crunch the numbers the price differential could be quite significant. I have a chronic illness, kidney disease, and I’ve had more surgery than years of life. (Stole that line more my dad.) I’ve been clinically dead at least five times. The scars on my body look like a road map to nowhere. They tell a very dramatic story so, again, yes I’ve been through a lot.
Then again, you might outpace me by a hundred miles. Does that mean my suffering has less value? Does that mean I don’t get to feel what I feel? Is there are chart somewhere that colour grades our problems or struggles? Red is extreme duress. Yellow is mild discomfort. Does that make it easier? Does that make it more legitimate?
When someone compares what they’re going through to what I’ve been through, I get uncomfortable. It’s not the comparison itself. I think it’s only natural to compare ourselves to others. Our need to compare is instinctual and, in a way, it’s a clumsy attempt at connection and intimacy. We compare ourselves because we all want to measure up to our contemporaries. If we do, then maybe we’ve found a place to belong. A home. A family. A safe space. It’s a primal need that keeps us alive.
At least, I think that’s the hope. Often the comparison leaves us feeling like we’re falling short of a very high bar. We can’t see it and, in some cases, there’s no hope of reaching it. That doesn’t seem to matter, though. We still take a running start, stick our pole-vault in the dirt, and do our damnedest to soar through the air like a fighter jet. Look Mom no hands!
It quickly becomes apparent that we’ve made some serious miscalculations. The pole’s not long enough. Our legs aren’t fast enough. That jet engine doesn’t have enough fuel. The disappointment is almost inevitable, and the fall will leave a mark. We lay on our backs, look up at the sky, and dejection presses down on us harder than gravity. We’ll spend hours trying to figure out what went wrong and beat ourselves up for it.
Isn’t that the price we pay for comparing our falls from grace? Our failures, bad luck, and life’s right hooks? When we’re comparing those moments, are we looking for reassurance that we didn’t fall as far as we thought? Is it a way to protect ourselves from pain, shame, guilt, or any other emotion that’s uncomfortable and isolating?
As much as I don’t like people comparing their experiences to mine; I’ve done it a hundred times. I’ve tried to play this game when I really should’ve kept it zipped up. That pissing contest, the dare to compare, doesn’t end well for me either. I don’t feel more connected and I don’t feel grateful for what I have. What am I doing when I compare myself, my experiences, and say that others have it worse?
I tell myself that I’m just gaining some perspective by looking at the world around me. Seeing what others are going through? The magnitude of their suffering? Sure, that perspective is great. Sometimes we need to step out of ourselves, our own little bubbles, to appreciate what we have. It’s better than wallowing, isn’t it?
In theory, you’d think it would take the sting off of my own pain and maybe it does? Occasionally. Sometimes. Maybe. Usually, it doesn’t make me feel better about my circumstances. More often than not I feel defeated and more alone because comparison doesn’t alleviate torment and it doesn’t bring me closer to the people that care about me.
Someone said that comparison is the thief of joy, and they’re right. Not only does it steal joy, but it alienates and divides. Whether I’m doing it to myself or others get in on the gig; I end up squished inside a tiny box and I’m extremely claustrophobic. Add twenty pounds of solid wood, a ton of fertilizer, and seed some grass. Wait a couple of weeks. Yeah, I’m not getting out of there.
Did I just describe a coffin? Wow, that’s a mood.
Just because our experiences differ, doesn’t mean one is more valid than the other. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to feel hurt, sad, grief-stricken. It doesn’t mean your pain is worth less than mine. More importantly, it doesn’t mean you can’t share it with me or anyone else because keeping it in, won’t do you any favours.
When we find someone who’s willing to listen, hear us out, and support us? Don’t push that person away. It doesn’t matter what they’ve been through! Maybe what they’ve been through makes them the perfect person to talk too. People who have been through hell and made it through to brighter days? We understand what you’re feeling better than anyone else so don’t shut us out.
By making the comparison that’s what you’re doing. Unintentionally! It isn’t deliberate and it’s not hurtful. At least, I’m not hurt by it but I am frustrated. I want to be there for you. I want to hold your hand. I want to listen to your story. I want to help you if I can and if I can’t then I want to sit with you. If you need me? If you want me? I’ll be there but I can’t do that if you’re shutting me out or shutting others out.
Don’t sell yourself short! Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to go through it alone. If you’re lucky enough to have a person in your life that will sit with you then let them in and let them be there for you. Your pain is valid. Your struggles are real. Adversity isn’t comparable and no one’s handing out medals for the most tormented.
It’s so easy to turn our lives into one big pissing contest but the only winners are the flowers that get watered. Maybe it’s time to zip it up, wash our hands, and start sharing instead of comparing.