How to Stop Comparative Suffering

Brene Brown has a new podcast called Unlocking Us, which is phenomenal and very timely as the COVID-19 pandemic creeps across the globe. The title of the podcast I listened to was: Brene on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth and Settling the Ball. Comparative suffering is a new concept to me, although I have been in its clutches for weeks! I’ll feel pouty because I’m suffering from cabin fever on my third week of house arrest…err, stay-at-home order. But then there are the 450 employees my dear friend just had to lay off. How can I possibly have it as tough as she? And what about the employee whose stepfather is in the ICU suffering from the virus in a medically-induced coma? Shame on me for even whining about being cooped up. What Brene made clear was that we are all suffering and that comparing our suffering helps no one. In fact, it hurts us.


There is a new vernacular for this comparative suffering: The Hardship Olympics.  I love this quote from Erica Layne: “So what if we all agreed not to evaluate, dissect, tally, and rank each other’s pain right now? What if we opt out of the Hardship Olympics and make a pact to lead with compassion instead?” What do you say we opt out and embrace compassion?

Here are some suggestions on stopping comparative suffering:

Empathy is not a finite resource.  Empathy is standing in someone else’s shoes and understanding how they feel. This ability is infinite. So, if I can empathize with my friend’s big layoff, I can also empathize with my daughter’s unemployment claim taking more than three weeks; and I can empathize with my co-worker’s fear over her stepfather’s condition. One does not get negated by the other. I think of the practice of Tonglen and how it’s possible to take on each other’s pain and suffering of each situation regardless of size. I can empathize with all of New York City, Italy or the continent of Asia. There are no limits to empathy. There’s no need to dole it out by severity or size. Practice empathy without limits.

Comparison is the thief of joy.  Theodore Roosevelt famously said this. There are so many inherit issues with comparison. First, you rarely if ever know all the facts. Second, it steals valuable time that you could spend elsewhere. Third, there is no end to it…ever. So, if my co-worker vents about working from home while home schooling her three kids, I need to just listen and be present. It’s not the time to bring up your other co-worker with three toddlers or your friend who just lost his six-figure job. Comparing someone’s suffering to someone else’s just makes them feel guilty. I am completely guilty of this and I’m trying hard not to engage in one-upmanship in the suffering department.

Listen to understand.  Stephen Covey posited this many years ago. If your coworker is venting about working until midnight so he can help his son get his schoolwork done, actively listen to him vent. Ask clarifying questions like: “How many times this week did you work until midnight?”, “What sort of support is available right now?” or “What other options have you thought about?” This is not the time to shame them. No need to bring up how many people died in Spain today or how many kids your sister is homeschooling while working for a bank. Just be present and listen. It’s our deepest need to listen and be understood by someone. It’s the greatest gift you can give, and you can even do it remotely, over the phone, video conferencing, or a safe 6-feet apart. Give the gift of listening.

Connection.  Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Connection during social distancing and virtual work is an enormous hurdle right now. I’ve been working on this for the last two weeks. I’ve tried and failed to FaceTime with my eighty-five-year-old mother, but we were able to connect “old school” on the phone. I finally was able to FaceTime with my children yesterday and it was terrific to see their faces and listen to them joke with each other. I rarely talk to either of my brothers, but they have both called me in the last two weeks. My boyfriend Roy and I drove to New Bern to sit on his mother’s deck at a safe distance from his sister, brother-in-law and mother. It’s reassuring to see folks. To have evidence that they are safe and sound. To connect with a joke, compare store lines and mask usage at your local grocery, or give Netflix recommendations. Think about ways to connect.

It’s also important to forgive yourself. None of this is normal for any of us. We were used to handshakes, hugging and sitting on the same couch as our relatives. This is just another challenge we need to take on. It’s fine if you aren’t perfect at this and can take just one small step for now. Maybe it’s reaching out to one co-worker, friend or neighbor with an email of appreciation. What step can you take?

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