Other People Have It Worse

[CN: bullying, sexual assault]

I had a client recently who spent most of his childhood as a target of relentless bullying and physical violence at school. Now, he says, “It’s not that big of a deal. I had a home and a loving family. Some people had it much worse.”

I said, “The worst thing you’ve ever gone through is the worst thing you’ve ever gone through.”

What I mean is that whatever it is that happened to you that still makes you burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror, that’s still (one of) the most difficult thing(s) you’ve ever lived through. The fact that the things that make other people burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror seem worse to you doesn’t change that.

Besides, it’s not so easy to rank suffering. Even if you could rank potential traumas from worst to least worst, someone else’s ranking might look totally different. (There are people who feel that they’d rather die than be gay, and there are happy gay people.) And the ranking might change completely if the hypothetical becomes real. Many people might think, “I could never live through ____,” until ____ happens. Then it sucks, and yet they live. Often they even thrive. And something else becomes The Worst Thing.

So, in fact, one of the people who’s survived one of the things you think about when you think “other people have it worse” might be thinking the same about you. Who’s to say who is right?

When I worked with survivors of sexual assault on a hotline, I noticed that almost every single one of them expressed the belief that others were the “real victims” while they didn’t really have it “that bad.” The women who had faced “attempted” rape said that the women who had “actually” been raped had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by partners or friends said that the women who had been raped by strangers had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by strangers said that the women who had been physically injured during the rape had it “worse.” The women who had been physically injured during the rape said that the women who had contracted an STI or become pregnant had it “worse.” And on and on it went.

In fact, some women who had been raped by strangers thought, “At least I didn’t get raped by someone I loved.” Some women have found it less traumatic to be raped by someone they hadn’t wanted to have sex with at all than by someone that they agreed to have sex with, who then violated their consent by lying about having put on a condom or by doing something else that they hadn’t consented to.

Everyone seems to think that 1) someone else’s experience was objectively worse, and 2) that this means that their own experience “shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

So either everyone’s trauma is valid, or no one’s trauma is valid. And the latter doesn’t make any sense.

The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world. That’s an admirable goal and a worthwhile perspective. However, I think that a certain amount of healing needs to happen before that’s feasible or healthy. It’s okay if there’s a period of time during which you feel absolutely certain that nobody has ever suffered as you’re suffering. And it’s okay if the cause of that feeling is a broken-up relationship or a failed class or even just a spectacularly shitty day. It doesn’t have to be a Real Approved Trauma™.

I think many people feel that they have a moral imperative to always Keep Things In Perspective and make sure that their feelings are in line with some objective ranking of bad things. But the way you feel in the aftermath of a bad thing doesn’t have to be your final say on the matter. It doesn’t have to Mean Anything besides the fact that your brain is doing brain stuff. It doesn’t have to be a feeling you “endorse.”

Of course, many people also believe that if you can somehow fully convince yourself that others do in fact Have It Worse, it will hasten your healing. I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but it doesn’t really seem in line with what I’ve observed in my own experiences, friendships, and professional work with people. Rather, it seems that people heal through acknowledging what happened to them and feeling the feelings that it brings up. There’s a reason why “Wow, that sounds really hard, I’m sorry” does a better job of comforting people than “You know, others have it worse.”

If there value in contemplating the struggles of others as part of your own healing process, I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in chastisingly reminding yourself that Others Have It Worse, but in letting yourself see how similar those struggles really are. Don’t jump to the classist assumption that people in the “Third World” are necessarily dying of AIDS or hunger while silly privileged you is crying over a breakup. Read some lovesick poetry written by a teenage boy in Ethiopia. And, not but. Replace “This sucks but others have it worse” with “This sucks and I bet other people have to deal with it too.” Countless other people have survived this and you will too. Doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does mean there’s hope.

Emotions are relative, which is why the worst thing you’ve ever experienced feels like the worst thing in the world. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that emotions are relative is what allows us both to cope with persistent adversity and also to keep reaching higher for happiness rather than becoming complacent.

It also means that there isn’t much use in trying to figure out who’s suffering more. Rational!You can choose to care more about global poverty than rare feline diseases that kills some pet cats (I think that would be a wise decision), but the rest of you is still allowed to grieve when your cat dies because of a rare feline disease, and while you’re grieving, you’re allowed to care much more about rare feline diseases than global poverty. If nothing else, think of it this way: the sooner you let yourself feel your feelings, the sooner you can be back to your rational, poverty-prioritizing self.

But besides that, I think that allowing ourselves to feel our own feelings also helps us to be more compassionate to others, including all those people we think are suffering so much more.


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[In Brief] How to Talk About Mental Illness Recovery Without Shaming

Lucy Hale covers this month’s Cosmo.

Remember that post about celebrity gossip I just wrote? Well, here’s an example of how reading that stuff can be useful and enlightening.

I’m reading an interview in the September issue of Cosmo with Lucy Hale, a 23-year-old actress most known for her role on Pretty Little Liars, a guilty pleasure of mine. In the interview, Hale opens up (apparently for the first time) about the eating disorder she struggled with as a teenager:

But behind the scenes, Lucy developed a dangerous habit all too common among young starlets. ‘I’ve never really talked about this, but I would go days without eating. Or maybe I’d have some fruit and then go to the gym for three hours. I knew I had a problem,’ Lucy says of the issue that plagued her for two years. Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around. ‘It was a gradual process, but I changed myself,’ she says.

Except for the following paragraph, in which Hale talks about cutting damaging friendships out of her life, no other details are given about how she recovered from her eating disorder, and I won’t assume. However she did it, it’s awesome and she deserves to feel great about having accomplished that.

However, the Cosmo writer takes it a bit further with this sentence: “Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around.”

Wait…what? So people who succumb to the “downward slide” of eating disorders, or who need professional help to recover, just lack the “strength” that Hale has?

Obviously, I disagree.

If Hale really did recover without any professional help–which, again, she does not make that clear–there are many potential reasons for that. Perhaps she had a great support system of friends and family. Maybe she’s not genetically predisposed to eating disorders. Maybe her parents have healthy eating habits that they were able to model for her. She might’ve not had as serious a case as others do. Or perhaps she just got lucky.

None of this means that actresses who are “unable to escape the downward slide” have any less “strength” than Hale did. It means, probably, that they had different circumstances. Different lives.

So, how does one talk about people who have recovered from mental illness on their own without putting down those who cannot? My answer would be, by not comparing them to each other. Hale recovered? That’s awesome. Another actress didn’t? That’s a tragedy, and she deserves help and support. Their illnesses are not comparable, even if they happen to share the same name.

As Leo Tolstoy said, unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. Similarly, people who suffer from mental illness all do so in their own way. Just because one recovers and another does not doesn’t mean that one has more “strength” than the other.

P.S. Before anybody goes all “but it’s just Cosmo, who cares!”, Cosmo has a circulation of over 3 million in the United States and is also distributed in over 100 other countries in 32 languages. Readers of this blog probably think Cosmo is silly and not something to be taken seriously (which it’s not), but the truth is that many people around the world probably get most of their information about things like mental illness from media like this. So it’s definitely worth examining and critiquing.