How ‘Comparative Suffering’ Can Hold Back HSPs — And What to Do Instead

A highly sensitive woman deep in thought

Comparative suffering’ maybe be the fastest way to kill compassion. Is there a better way to channel your empathy — and actually feel good?

I sat in a room filled with exotic, handcrafted artwork from countries across the globe. There were several people in my friend’s house that day, but I didn’t know most of them and decided to sit in silence, staring at each piece on her wall.

My friend walked to me with a plate of food and asked if I would like some. I explained that I cannot eat it because chili peppers, which were an obvious ingredient, gave me terrible migraines.

Even as the words were leaving my lips, I thought of how insignificant my migraine was in comparison to the disease that she had just conquered — cancer. I don’t know for sure if she judged me, but I definitely judged myself. I felt that in the presence of her storm, my problem was a gentle breeze. 

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), this feeling resonated particularly strongly with me. We’re known to be empathic, and I certainly was — more than usual — at that point. I also felt dumb for mentioning something as seemingly insignificant as chili peppers.

Why We Compare Our Suffering to Other People’s

Comparing our burdens is something a lot of people do — and the habit of making such assessments might have the best of intentions. For example, when you were a child growing up and didn’t want to finish all the food on your plate, your parents may have told you to think about all the children starving in Africa — so how dare you waste food. Chances are, your parents had your well-being in mind. 

Other times, people hope that if we compare suffering, we would feel grateful — our attitude toward our situation could change and perhaps we’ll feel better: Things aren’t that bad after all. Ever heard someone say, “Be grateful it wasn’t worse”? When we grow up comparing our ills this way, we begin to do it as adults, too. 

However, irrespective of how well-intended the act of comparing suffering is, there are several detrimental aspects to it, especially for HSPs. Plus, we may be more prone to do it. But here are six reasons why comparing suffering is not necessarily a good thing for us to do.

Like what you’re reading? Get our newsletter just for HSPs. One email, every Friday. Click here to subscribe!

6 Reasons Not to Compare Suffering as an HSP 

1. Everyone’s experience is different — so it’s truly not possible to compare fairly.

Research shows us that there is considerable variation in the way stressors, whether physical or psychological, affect different people. So, the same circumstance could build one person up while completely shattering the other. Think of deadlines, for example. Some people thrive and perform their very best when they are under deadlines. Many highly sensitive people, however, find deadlines difficult, even crippling. (Time anxiety is real!)

The differences in the way we respond to similar situations are due to multiple factors. Some of these factors depend on how we are built, such as the neurochemicals and hormones acting in our body, the way our nervous systems respond, how our brains process information, and our genetics. And other factors are dependent on how we were raised. These can include our exposure to trauma as a child, the social support that was available to us, the coping strategies we used, as well as our sense of control. All of these interacted with each other and made us into the way we are today.

As you can imagine, there are so many permutations and combinations of these that are possible, allowing for significant individual variation in the way we go through distress. Each person’s experience of hardship is unique, as is each person’s reaction to it. Because of this individuality, we cannot fairly compare any two people’s suffering. Plus, as highly sensitive people, we may react more strongly to suffering than someone who’s less sensitive, which also makes comparing not viable. Which brings me to my next point…

2. The HSP experience is different from the non-HSP experience.

In addition to these individual differences, we also know that the nervous system of a highly sensitive person works differently from that of a person who is not highly sensitive. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) has allowed us to see this clearly. The regions of the brain that process sensory information — and those that make us aware, empathetic, and ready to take action — light up brighter, and more often, among people who scored high on the HSP scale as opposed to those whose HSP scores were low. 

To this end, it’s a fact that highly sensitive people feel things more deeply than others. The intensity of sensation, and emotion, that we contend with during an ordeal — that non-HSP people may consider to be more trivial — could very well match the intensity that they perceive when going through an event they consider devastating. So this is yet another reason why it’s best that we don’t compare ourselves with others.  

3. You cannot truly judge, or understand, what other people have endured.

It’s no secret that highly sensitive people are very intuitive when it comes to other people’s needs. We are empathetic and feel their pain as though we’d experienced it in our bodies (and minds), as well. 

I remember when I worked as a doctor and had to clean wounds. The patients who had these wounds were used to getting them dressed, and many of their sores no longer had functioning nerve endings. They may have winced once in a while, but apart from that, they didn’t seem to feel much pain. I, however, couldn’t stop imagining the gashes on my body, the part of me that corresponded to where their wound was gnawed. In response, I also felt a tightness in my chest and a profound agony in my mind. 

These instances tell me that sometimes as highly sensitive people, we use our vivid imaginations and innate empathy to attribute more pain to people than they might actually be sensing. It’s likely that when we compare suffering, we take this imagined pain into consideration rather than what is real.

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

4. You tend to be hyper-critical of yourself — so comparing can be particularly bad for your psyche.

As highly sensitive people, we are often ridiculously critical of ourselves. We are often perfectionists and set unattainable standards for ourselves. And when we fail to meet them, we beat ourselves up over it. 

We are usually not compassionate toward ourselves. With this attitude, if we compare our difficulties to the challenges others face, we would likely belittle — or completely invalidate — our struggle(s). This is particularly harmful because when we do that, we worsen our self-esteem and may even stop ourselves from seeking help when we need it.

5. Situations may really upset you since emotions hit you harder than others.

I remember how, as a child, I was a very picky eater. Many highly sensitive people are. Someone said to me that phrase I mentioned above, “Think of all the hungry children in Africa.” I wondered why they mentioned Africa, considering that we lived in India, another poverty-stricken region with a large number of malnourished children. And then I asked them how eating my food would help the starving children on another continent. 

Despite those rationalizations, thinking of those kids made me feel terrible. “Look at my problems,” I thought. “I’m complaining about my choice of food. Look at theirs: Death.” 

I don’t remember if I ate all my food, but my mood was low for a few days. Because of our empathetic nature, thinking of another person’s suffering may make us HSPs very emotional.

6. It might make you even more fearful (which will overwhelm you even more).

Sometimes when we think of a worse scenario, that scenario may become one of the things we fear. Recently, my husband and I were flying from our home to my parents’ place. I get physically sick when I travel, so I was sitting there with my head in my hands, worried about potentially vomiting. My husband said, “Ann, don’t worry. It’s a pleasant day. The sky is clear and blue. Imagine if it was raining.” 

So, I did. 

My heart was pounding now, and a sense of dread filled me. “What if it rains on the way?” I thought. “This is going to get really bad.”

My husband had intended to make me feel better as a way to console me, but it had the opposite effect: My HSP brain went into overdrive and now I had something else to worry about, too.

What to Do Instead of Comparing Our Suffering

So, if comparing our suffering to that of others is not good for us, what do we do instead? Here are a few things we can do, both for ourselves and those who speak to us about their problems.  

  • Use your HSP empathy to just listen. The HSP way of actively listening to people’s adversity is powerful. We naturally do what many coaches and counselors need to learn formally. Very often, people feel better when they share their burdens with another person. It makes them feel less isolated and actually feel heard. Sometimes, the person sharing might find that the answers they need come to their minds as they are speaking. Just by listening, we help.
  • Encourage them — and remind them they’re strong and have overcome challenges before. Everyone needs encouragement. When a person is struggling with something, it helps to remind them of their strength and ability to overcome challenges. This applies to both their current situation, as well as situations they’ve gotten through in the past. 
  • Empathize — instead of comparing suffering, tell them you understand (because you probably do). Sometimes, it helps a person who is suffering to know that they are understood. We cannot completely understand what they are going through, but we are masters of empathizing. We can sit with them, sharing their sorrow and providing them with a safe space within which to share their thoughts and feelings with us. For example, one of the doctors that I learned from is a highly sensitive person who works in helping poor people with terminal cancer live (and die) without too much discomfort. I’ve watched her listen to her patients’ problems, hold their hands, and cry unapologetically. Her patients actually love her for it because they know how deeply she cares.

Finally, keep in mind that comparing suffering is commonplace — so, people that we reach out to, even our loved ones, may invite us to engage in it. However, it helps to remember that they don’t necessarily know how comparing affects us. It might be worth our while to extend our compassion to them, as well as let them know how to best help our highly sensitive souls when we are hurt.

You might like:

This article contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we truly believe in.