Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Problem With Ranking Our Pain and Struggles

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of someone else by sharing in it – actually putting yourself in their shoes. It is very different from sympathy which is feeling sorry for someone and therefore creating disconnection. A newborn has the capacity to be empathetic but it needs to develop it through experience and being taught. Have you considered how empathetic you are?

Have you ever thought about your lack of empathy in certain situations? 

I always thought I was good at feeling what someone else must be going through as I often find myself with tears of joy or sadness alongside my friend or even a stranger. However, there are specific times when it is hard to muster. Why?

I rank my pain or struggle compared to someone else's.

This is a guilty confession for me. There are several areas in life where I rank situations in regards to loss and struggle compared to my experience. For example: My mom passed away at the age of 53. How do I feel when someone loses a loved one in their 80's? Not very empathetic. If their mom was only 40, oodles of empathy. Another example comes from parenting as one of my children has some special needs. I may not be as empathetic when someone complains how busy parenting their regular needs child is (I know, I know, I'm letting you into my innermost thoughts so please don't judge me) yet often think of how hard it must be for others who have children with even greater needs.

I am thankful that I have come to the understanding that everyone's struggle will be their own and they have the right to feel how they want. We are all unique in our make up but also in the pain that we know and experience.  I remember how I felt devastated when I failed my driver's test at the age of 16. Do I now have empathy for 16-year-old Louise? It wouldn't be my first response but if I put myself into her shoes, it was the biggest failure I had ever gone through. I felt how I did based on the experiences I had up until that point and I had a right to feel upset and embarrassed.

My husband often says "Who cares what other people are doing or what they think" but I love insight and baselines and I am a quantifier. I can learn from others but also see where I fit in. This is both beneficial in self-recognition yet dangerous in regards to comparison. One of my favourite quotes thus far has been "Comparison in the thief of joy" by Theodore Roosevelt. I appreciate it in regards to comparing our lives in our opportunities, financial situations, families, physical appearances, travel – you know, basically our Instagram feeds. However, I had not thought about how I use it to compare my struggles.

Brene Brown in Braving the Wilderness says:

"...the more we diminish our own pain, or rank it compared to what others have survived, the less empathetic we are to everyone."

Comparison not only robs us of joy but of empathy, too. 

I used to think that I had the comparison thing dealt with because I don't often want what others have in regards to looks or wealth or opportunities and am pretty grateful for my life. I did not realize that the topic of struggle needed to be included in that list. It does not matter where our situation or someone else's fits on the painless to painful scale. Sure, perspective can help everyone but we really need to be aware of our feelings towards others and their circumstances as well as our own. We should not feel bad that our struggles are hard for us even when others have it worse. It goes both ways – outward and inward.

Tiredness, busyness, stress, needs...everything could be a comparison. One person's stress could be someone else's joy. I'm still wrestling with this whole idea but am thankful to be challenged on the idea that my empathy had been situational based on my own pain ranking.

Do you have a quote or thought that keeps you on track in this department? Words of wisdom that someone has given you?


If you want to see an amazing video comparing sympathy and empathy, Brene Brown has a great explanation here.

Do you lack empathy in certain areas? Could it be due to comparing their pain and struggle to your own?


  1. This post really made me stop and think, it’s interesting to think of the idea of comparison in the context of struggle!
    Someone once shared a quote that has stuck with me for whatever reason: “saying someone can’t be sad because someone else might have it worse is like saying someone can’t be happy because someone else might have it better” I try to remember it for myself when people say “well at least....” to me!

  2. Yes, love that comment too (re: saying someone can't be sad etc). Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Anonymous1:36 PM

    This was a really good reflection for me. I've been wanting to read a Brene Brown book for awhile, but didn't know which one to start with. Do you have any recommendations? Or a favourite to start with?


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Bretton! All of her books are great but I would recommend Braving the Wildnerness just because the major topics from her other books are shared there (especially Chapter 2)