Using Gratitude to Overcome the Comparative Suffering Trap

I’m a dual citizen of the US and Canada. This has some pros and cons, but one of the biggest pros is I get to celebrate my favorite holiday—Thanksgiving—twice a year. We celebrate a mid-October Monday in Canada, and then a late-November Thursday in the US. 

While I recognize the problematic colonial origins of this holiday, I do appreciate the idea of having a day—or in my case two days—devoted to gratitude and connection. Especially in the last couple years, many people are finding that feeling disconnected from the people they care about has been all too common. This year, I feel the values of this holiday seem even more important, yet still just out of reach. 

I had a good cry last American Thanksgiving, because it had been nine months since I had seen my family in the US including my parents, siblings, extended family, and friends. And now here we are nearly a year later, and I still haven’t been in the same room as them.

The Trap of Comparative Suffering

I find myself feeling very torn as we approach the holiday season. Part of me wants to give into self pity, and another part is feeling tremendous guilt for complaining at all while I have so much to be grateful for, and while others have been adversely affected by the pandemic in far more dramatic ways. Essentially, I’m in the comparative suffering trap. 

Comparative suffering assumes that we can measure our pain or distress in comparison to what others are going through. It works two ways—I can judge other people for the pain they’re vocalizing because I feel I have it worse, or I can undermine my own pain because I assume that other people have it worse than I do. We all do this sometimes, but now it seems to have become a normal part of how many of us move through the world. 

Here’s the downside of comparative suffering. It just makes us feel worse—guilty, ashamed, frustrated, entitled. Comparing our suffering to the suffering of others doesn’t reduce our pain or theirs. It creates an “us vs. them” way of thinking, which results in a greater sense of disconnection, which then leads to increased pain or a desire to numb all feelings. 

5 Ways to Combat Comparative Suffering

In honor of the holidays, let’s talk about pie for a moment. We can get caught in the mental trap of thinking that human suffering is like pie—finite and measurable. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. It’s true that suffering is relative, and those of us with privileges may be distressed by objectively less critical matters than someone with fewer privileges. Yet, it’s still distress. Pain is universal. If you’re human, you have pain. 

We might feel the same about compassion or love. If I try to take a piece of the compassion pie for myself, I may believe that there won’t be enough left for people in “real” pain. But just like the bottomless tin of pain pie, compassion pie is also endless—and in fact the more you take for yourself, the more you have to give to others. (If only that were true of real pie!) 

So, how do we break out of the mental traps of comparative suffering? I’m going to lean on some classic therapist tools to show us the way. 

1. Find perspective.
Let’s consider the important distinction between perspective-taking and comparative suffering. Stepping outside of our own perspective doesn’t mean we need to disregard our own feelings and experiences. It just allows us to see some facts that we might typically take for granted. I can feel compassion for someone who recently broke their leg and still say ouch when I get a paper cut. 

2. Unpack and honor your feelings. 
Last Thanksgiving, I felt so many feelings about not seeing my family. I wanted to numb and run away from all of them. I felt disappointed, and a sense of longing. Then I felt guilty for feeling that way when other people had it worse than I did. I felt angry and bitter when someone complained to me that they hadn’t seen their families recently—then felt guilty again. Yes, I managed to feel both polarities of comparative suffering at the same time. 

Then I cried. Messy cried. It hurt, it was ugly, and eventually it provided me with a bit of relief. Then I grabbed my computer and pounded out an essay about comparative suffering. That was my process—allow yourself whatever yours is to make yourself feel better. 

3. Make space for empathy. 
As a helping professional, you may feel like you have empathy for days and can skip this step, but stay with me for a moment. I don’t question that you have empathy for a client who just received a serious medical diagnosis, or a client who was wrongly terminated at work, or someone recovering from an accident. 

I’m talking about the person ahead of you in line at the coffee shop, who seems disproportionately devastated that their order was incorrect. It’s a challenge for all of us to find empathy for those people—to view them without judgement and consider what other pain they might be feeling that’s causing them to have such a reaction. Remember empathy, unlike pie, is actually bottomless. 

4. Nurture self-compassion.
Can you turn that same empathy inward? Can you speak to yourself in the same way you do your clients, friends, and family? Can you slow down for a moment and breathe, give yourself a hug, ask yourself what you need, and then meet that need? It’s easier said than done, I know. But like anything worth doing right, it takes consistent practice. 

5. Practice gratitude and appreciation. 
I once read about an important distinction between gratitude and appreciation. Gratitude is often contextual. For instance, if I have a child who’s teething and hasn’t been sleeping well, I may feel gratitude when they string together several hours of uninterrupted sleep. Appreciation, on the other hand, is simply noticing something in the moment—like your baby giggling when you make a funny face, even if it is in the middle of the night.

If you’re falling into the comparative suffering trap and are feeling disconnected, consider how these practices can provide space to heal some of your pain. Can you acknowledge the feelings that arise when something is missing, while still noticing what’s pleasing about the moment?

There’s room for both gratitude and appreciation in our lives. While a formal practice like a gratitude journal can be helpful, you can invite this practice into your life in less formal ways, by simply being present in the moment and acknowledging what is.  

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