What Is ‘Comparative Suffering’ — and Why Do HSPs So Often Get Stuck in It?

Two highly sensitive people slumping back-to-back as they compare their suffering

You don’t have to measure your bad days against those of others — in your life or around the world. Here’s how to put an an end to the guilt and your own “comparative suffering.”

Former President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” However, what isn’t as widely discussed is that the same idea applies to our suffering, too. After all, how many times have you been in the following scenario? You are going through a rough time — perhaps you are experiencing a breakup with a partner or friend, were laid off from your job, or feel overwhelmed by everything in life — and, as a result, you’re in distress. You feel miserable

Then, you hear an internal voice: “What are you upset about? It could be worse. This person over here — not only are they going through a breakup, but their mother also died. And that person over there lost their job and had to move to a worse place as a result. There are so many others who have it so much worse than you do. Stop feeling sad, there’s no reason to.” 

What’s disguised as a relief to our hurt is actually a punch to our already-bruised gut. More likely than not, you are now feeling even more miserable than before, as you are experiencing the pain of the original situation, the pain of guilt for your emotional experience, and the pain of not having room for your feelings. 

In essence: You aren’t “allowed” to feel your feelings (so to speak), and your feelings are not valid. Unfortunately, this only compounds our suffering because we are holding both the original hurt of the situation and the hurt of our emotional experience being invalidated. This is called comparative suffering, and it turns out that we highly sensitive people (HSPs) do it a lot. As a psychotherapist, I see it in my HSP clients, as well. 

There’s no denying it: Life is difficult and quite complicated. Unfortunately, suffering is often a consequence. But things get even more complicated in today’s world, given our unlimited access to technology. People share both the flash and the glamour of their lives, as well as their struggles and heartaches. On top of this, we have constant access to the perpetual news cycle of tragic stories. If we are not well-equipped emotionally, we may begin to diminish our own feelings and experiences as a result. And it is likely that for those of us who are sensitive, we are even more vulnerable to falling prey to this trap, given our natural tendency of empathizing with others.          

What Is ‘Comparative Suffering’ — And Why Do HSPs Do It?

Comparative suffering is when we view our painful experiences in terms of what other people are going through in order to determine the level of validity our suffering warrants. Essentially, this is the mindset that we aren’t allowed to complain or feel our feelings when someone else has it worse than us. Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was quoted as saying, “How much time [one] gains who does not look to see what [their] neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what [one] does [them]self, to make it just and holy.” And this is especially true when it comes to our feelings. In other words, our emotional experience does not need to be measured in terms of what others are going through. This steals not only time away from our healing, but also makes our painful experience that much more painful. 

The subject of comparative suffering began being discussed more widely during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to prominent shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown. She described comparative suffering as ranking our suffering against that of others, which is then used to either deny or give ourselves permission to feel. Unfortunately, given how messy and convoluted our world is, folks tend to land on the latter. Brown also emphasizes that comparative suffering is driven by a mentality of fear and scarcity, in which empathy is believed to be a limited resource.

It is likely that HSPs are more prone to engaging in comparative suffering. Indeed, one of our key characteristics is our compassionate nature. While this is a beautiful strength, if we don’t have a healthy psychological foundation, our compassion can also lead to negative consequences. This is especially true since our compassion makes it so easy to focus on others, in addition to not wanting to burden others with our own struggles. Plus, our sensitive and empathic nature makes us hyper-aware of the pain that others experience. If we are not emotionally grounded and, thus, over-identify, we then become flooded and overwhelmed by such pain, and subsequently may downplay our own emotions as a result. I have witnessed this phenomenon quite often in my clients, too, especially those who identify as HSPs.

Why Comparative Suffering Is Problematic

Comparative suffering is rooted in a culture of toxic positivity, in which we are bombarded with “the power of positive thinking” — to the point that people feel as if they are doing something wrong when they are not happy and full of joy 24/7 (which is impossible!). When someone shares that they are feeling upset, it is not unusual for the response to be some version of: “It could be worse,” “Look on the bright side,” or “At least X, Y, and Z aren’t happening.” This type of thinking adds fuel to the fire of comparative suffering, as this reinforces the notion that our experience must surpass a certain threshold in order for us to be allowed to feel our feelings, and that if we can’t suppress our feelings with the power of positivity, then there must be something wrong with us.

Indeed, toxic positivity and comparative suffering only result in further suffering. This not only minimizes the importance of our emotions, it’s also perpetually invalidating. After all, with this type of mindset, no one’s pain would ever be valid, since technically, there will always be some way in which our experience could be worse, or someone who is worse off than us. But as Dr. Brown points out, our emotions don’t magically disappear because they don’t score high enough on the suffering scale. Quite the opposite, actually — our emotions grow stronger when we resist them because we can’t heal what we don’t feel. “Hurt is hurt,” as Brown states.

Further, with comparative suffering, we don’t just feel the original pain, but also a negative secondary emotion on top of that. A secondary emotion is any emotion (typically negative) we feel as a result of feeling the original emotion, usually due to a judgment about the original emotion or ourselves for feeling said emotion. In this case, the secondary emotion is often guilt, shame, or anger and frustration. When we believe “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” or even, “I’m a bad person for feeling this way since others have it worse than me,” this only compounds our suffering.

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, comparative suffering is rooted in the false belief that empathy is limited: “If I give myself compassion, then I’ll have less compassion to give to the people who really need it.” And as HSPs, this is an especially scary thought, as showing others kindness and empathy is part of who we are. However, this notion of limited empathy is actually the opposite of the truth. When we deny ourselves the validation we so desperately need for our difficult feelings, this can result in compassion fatigue, thereby making it more difficult to extend empathy onto others. Further, empathy is not a limited resource. Rather, compassion is like a muscle that grows stronger the more we exercise it. When we can give ourselves the compassion we need, we can better cultivate compassion for others.

How to Combat Comparative Suffering

1. Embrace self-compassion and realize you are not alone in your suffering.

As alluded to previously, self-compassion is the antithesis of comparative suffering. Instead of the assumption that our pain is only valid if it ranks high enough compared to what others experience, self-compassion takes a different approach. More specifically, self-compassion is comprised of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness

While comparative suffering views the pain of others as a way to invalidate our emotional experience, self-compassion utilizes the lens of common humanity in order to realize that we are not alone in our suffering to normalize our experience. It goes further by emphasizing mindfulness (i.e., What am I feeling? What do I need right now?), and self-kindness (i.e., validating our experience and giving ourselves the affirmation we need). Indeed, as Dr. Brown points out, empathy is the antidote for shame, as the two are incompatible. Instead, when we attend to our own feelings and needs, we can create compassion for both ourselves and others.

2. Utilize dialectic thinking, the idea that we can have two seemingly opposing statements that both hold truth and are valid.

A dialectic is a concept from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a therapeutic orientation developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan. Essentially, a dialectic is the idea that we can have two seemingly opposing statements that both hold truth and are valid. One way to utilize this approach is by replacing “but” with “and.” Notice the difference between: “I am feeling sad and hurt, but these people are suffering, as well” versus “I am feeling sad and hurt, and these people are suffering, as well.” 

While “but” negates and minimizes our experiences, “and” allows us to recognize the pain others may experience while also validating our own emotional experience. Yes, there are other people out there who are suffering; perhaps they are objectively worse off than us. And all human beings experience suffering. And all suffering is valid, including ours. With dialectics, we can hold both experiences at the same time. One person’s experience with suffering doesn’t negate anyone else’s emotional pain. 

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3. Reach out to supportive others.

Oftentimes, we are our own worst enemy and harsher on ourselves than others would be. It’s for this reason that having supportive others, such as a partner, friends, family members, etc., is crucial during stressful and difficult circumstances. Because there are plenty of people who buy into the toxic positivity mindset, we are allowed to be selective in those we reach out to for support. For people we trust, they can help us get out of comparative suffering by validating our experience and reminding us that we are allowed to feel whatever emotions may arise.

4. Journal about your experience.

If you are hesitant to share your pain with others out of fear of burdening them, or assuming that most people in your life won’t be able to offer the kind of support you need, journaling can be a great option. By getting your thoughts and feelings out on paper knowing it’ll be for your eyes only, this can allow you to process your emotions while being less inhibited. There won’t be that fear of being judged or of “bothering” or inadvertently hurting others. 

There are many types of journaling, and often, by getting what is in our head into more formulated words, this helps to not only make sense of our experience, but we can also make a conscious effort to approach this task in a nonjudgmental and validating manner, giving ourselves the support we need. Further, when rereading our writing, we may realize we were engaging in comparative suffering that we were unaware of at the time. By being cognizant of this tendency, we can start to become more mindful of our thought patterns and make an effort to instead validate our pain, treating ourselves as we would a friend.

5. Attend psychotherapy in order to get an objective opinion.

For some of us, comparative suffering may be so second nature that we need some extra help in breaking free. Psychotherapy can be especially useful in such cases, as we have an objective third party to bring to our attention what we otherwise wouldn’t notice, Plus, they can help us learn and practice tools to replace comparative suffering with validating, as well as address any potential obstacles or resistance to letting go of comparative suffering and implementing said tools. Additionally, your therapist can help you examine those secondary emotions (e.g., guilt, shame, anger, etc.) that are a result of engaging in comparative suffering, explore reasons you may be engaging in comparative suffering in the first place, and help you cultivate a greater sense of self-compassion. 

Remember, You Don’t Have to ‘Earn’ the Right to Validate Your Experience 

Know that whatever you are going through — a breakup, job layoff, or a myriad of other life stressors — regardless of what anyone else may be experiencing, your feelings are valid. And remember: Your feelings deserve to be felt. You deserve to be heard. You don’t have to “earn” the right to validate your experience, as you and your experience are inherently valid. And the more you learn to not give into comparative suffering, the happier and freer you’ll be.

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