A few days ago, I saw a tweet about Joe Biden written by someone who had lost a child. The writer commented how he couldn’t imagine Biden’s pain from losing two children and a spouse. Then I ran across a reply to the tweet that said, “I’ve had it a lot worse than Biden, and so have most Americans.”
Let’s strip this exchange of all things political, and talk about coping with stress. Specifically, let’s ask, “Does comparing the intensity of your stress with someone else’s – “I have suffered more than you have” – help you cope better?”
Suppose you are in a support group to help you deal with some stressful event. You have just shared your story with the group and someone says, “Big deal. I’ve had it a lot tougher than you! You got off easy.” Would you feel better after hearing their story? I would imagine not. No matter how intense their experience was, your trauma and pain do not simply go away.
Here’s the thing: Being stressed out and needing help is not a competition. When you hear that someone else has problems that make yours look minor, you might be tempted to say to yourself, “Why am I getting so overwhelmed by my situation? Others have bigger problems than mine.”
Maybe so, but if your life is being disrupted by a specific stressful event, you need to tend to the problem, or the stress will intensify and likely lead to worse difficulties. The degree to which stressful events affect you is not determined by how your stress stacks up against someone else’s. And, when you start comparing stress loads, you may even feel shame and guilt if you decide someone else’s issues are worse than yours. Any way you look at it, comparing stress intensities is a losing proposition.
Consider this question: When someone says, “I’ve had it a lot tougher than you,” what is missing from their comment? Two things really: First is Humility. As soon as someone says their road has been rockier than yours, they are descending into the depths of self-glorification; they are telling you, “I, not you, am the primary ingredient in the recipe we’re dealing with here. It’s all about me!”
When you remove humility from your coping actions, you won’t be able to deal with your problems effectively. Imagine this exchange:
Jim: “I lost my job, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I’m depressed, I don’t know what to do!”
Bill: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, give me a break. Try having your wife walk out on you with another guy, and leave you with two kids to raise.”
Jim: “Well, if you still have your job, at least you can afford to feed them!”
Bill: “Young kids need their mother! I can’t do that kind of parenting. I need help and don’t know where to turn.”
This is pretty absurd, isn’t it? Jim and Bill are each working very hard to convince the other that his burden is heavier. The fact is, the burden is heavy for both of them, and they each need to address their respective problem.
In addition to humility, the second thing missing when stress loads are compared, is the sprout of humility’s seed: Empathy. In the exchange above, for instance, neither speaker empathizes with the suffering of the other; each feels only his own discomfort. The result is that neither is able to resolve their stress.
The irony for Jim and Bill is that if they bothered to appreciate the other’s story, they just might gain some insight into their own difficulty. When you’re stressed and upset, you struggle to find ways to deal with emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy, and others that rob you of stability in your life. At this point in the coping process, you think it’s all about you, and this self-centered emphasis makes coping difficult.
When you get outside of yourself, however, and bring others into the picture, the coping picture brightens. Whether you reach out to others with problems similar to yours, or work at trying to understand the effect you are having on others, substituting an “other-oriented” – rather than “self-oriented” – focus will provide insight into your problem. This focus is what we mean by empathy.
One final point to make about comparing stresses: Such a comparison is less likely when a victim is in a support group designed for his or her difficulty. Thus, “Compassionate Friends” and “Healing Hearts” bring bereaved parents together. If the issue is divorce or separation, there are support groups for women, men, those over 40, and even those with a specific religious affiliation. When you’re with similar people who have experienced problems like yours, the issue of comparison is less likely to rear its ugly head.