Other People Have It Worse

[CN: bullying, sexual assault]

I had a client recently who spent most of his childhood as a target of relentless bullying and physical violence at school. Now, he says, “It’s not that big of a deal. I had a home and a loving family. Some people had it much worse.”

I said, “The worst thing you’ve ever gone through is the worst thing you’ve ever gone through.”

What I mean is that whatever it is that happened to you that still makes you burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror, that’s still (one of) the most difficult thing(s) you’ve ever lived through. The fact that the things that make other people burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror seem worse to you doesn’t change that.

Besides, it’s not so easy to rank suffering. Even if you could rank potential traumas from worst to least worst, someone else’s ranking might look totally different. (There are people who feel that they’d rather die than be gay, and there are happy gay people.) And the ranking might change completely if the hypothetical becomes real. Many people might think, “I could never live through ____,” until ____ happens. Then it sucks, and yet they live. Often they even thrive. And something else becomes The Worst Thing.

So, in fact, one of the people who’s survived one of the things you think about when you think “other people have it worse” might be thinking the same about you. Who’s to say who is right?

When I worked with survivors of sexual assault on a hotline, I noticed that almost every single one of them expressed the belief that others were the “real victims” while they didn’t really have it “that bad.” The women who had faced “attempted” rape said that the women who had “actually” been raped had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by partners or friends said that the women who had been raped by strangers had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by strangers said that the women who had been physically injured during the rape had it “worse.” The women who had been physically injured during the rape said that the women who had contracted an STI or become pregnant had it “worse.” And on and on it went.

In fact, some women who had been raped by strangers thought, “At least I didn’t get raped by someone I loved.” Some women have found it less traumatic to be raped by someone they hadn’t wanted to have sex with at all than by someone that they agreed to have sex with, who then violated their consent by lying about having put on a condom or by doing something else that they hadn’t consented to.

Everyone seems to think that 1) someone else’s experience was objectively worse, and 2) that this means that their own experience “shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

So either everyone’s trauma is valid, or no one’s trauma is valid. And the latter doesn’t make any sense.

The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world. That’s an admirable goal and a worthwhile perspective. However, I think that a certain amount of healing needs to happen before that’s feasible or healthy. It’s okay if there’s a period of time during which you feel absolutely certain that nobody has ever suffered as you’re suffering. And it’s okay if the cause of that feeling is a broken-up relationship or a failed class or even just a spectacularly shitty day. It doesn’t have to be a Real Approved Trauma™.

I think many people feel that they have a moral imperative to always Keep Things In Perspective and make sure that their feelings are in line with some objective ranking of bad things. But the way you feel in the aftermath of a bad thing doesn’t have to be your final say on the matter. It doesn’t have to Mean Anything besides the fact that your brain is doing brain stuff. It doesn’t have to be a feeling you “endorse.”

Of course, many people also believe that if you can somehow fully convince yourself that others do in fact Have It Worse, it will hasten your healing. I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but it doesn’t really seem in line with what I’ve observed in my own experiences, friendships, and professional work with people. Rather, it seems that people heal through acknowledging what happened to them and feeling the feelings that it brings up. There’s a reason why “Wow, that sounds really hard, I’m sorry” does a better job of comforting people than “You know, others have it worse.”

If there value in contemplating the struggles of others as part of your own healing process, I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in chastisingly reminding yourself that Others Have It Worse, but in letting yourself see how similar those struggles really are. Don’t jump to the classist assumption that people in the “Third World” are necessarily dying of AIDS or hunger while silly privileged you is crying over a breakup. Read some lovesick poetry written by a teenage boy in Ethiopia. And, not but. Replace “This sucks but others have it worse” with “This sucks and I bet other people have to deal with it too.” Countless other people have survived this and you will too. Doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does mean there’s hope.

Emotions are relative, which is why the worst thing you’ve ever experienced feels like the worst thing in the world. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that emotions are relative is what allows us both to cope with persistent adversity and also to keep reaching higher for happiness rather than becoming complacent.

It also means that there isn’t much use in trying to figure out who’s suffering more. Rational!You can choose to care more about global poverty than rare feline diseases that kills some pet cats (I think that would be a wise decision), but the rest of you is still allowed to grieve when your cat dies because of a rare feline disease, and while you’re grieving, you’re allowed to care much more about rare feline diseases than global poverty. If nothing else, think of it this way: the sooner you let yourself feel your feelings, the sooner you can be back to your rational, poverty-prioritizing self.

But besides that, I think that allowing ourselves to feel our own feelings also helps us to be more compassionate to others, including all those people we think are suffering so much more.


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Other People Have It Worse

7 thoughts on “Other People Have It Worse

  1. 1

    Thanks for this post. I’m no therapist, but I think you’re right. Many people come from personal cultures where politeness or whatever constrains them from admitting concern over themselves. So it can often be the job of the therapist to “give permission” to a client to come out and say: yes, from my experience, that was the most awful thing ever. Giving polite people permission to own their own emotions can be one of the best simple gifts that a good therapist can give.

  2. 2

    The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world.

    Yeah, ostensibly. But there are also other purposes. All of this is a rather hopeless mess; don’t count on anything resembling consistency. Here are some candidates:

    – You are afraid that you won’t be treated seriously, so – just in case – you say preemptively something like “others have it worse” or “it’s not that big of a deal” (let them see that their reaction doesn’t bother you!)

    – You are so ashamed of your past that you are trying to play safe. Minimizing the experience sounds like a good idea: it gives people a chance of *not* fully appreciating how horrible you are.

    – Your own experience – nasty as it may feel – seems to you deeply trivial. You know what? In fact, you are trivial. By default, the topic must be awkward and boring to everyone except you. Do you really have to talk about it? No, you do not. Better not. And if ever, please be apologetic. Preceding it with something like „it’s not a big deal” (shortly before your listeners start yawning) is the least you can do.

    What do you think about these purposes, all of you? Banal and boring, aren’t they? I must have already made you yawning. Ah, do not worry. It’s not that big of a deal.

  3. 3

    A friend of mine was going through a rough time recently (she’s getting harassed at work). Someone told her to ‘be grateful she at least has a job’. Her response, stripped of the foul language, was – Some people have no feet, but I bet if you had a rock in your shoe you’d dump it out.

    Yes, some people have it worse. But that’s no reason to put up with bad shit. And interestingly enough, if enough people stop putting up with the little bits of bad shit, the big bits of bad shit will have nothing to hide behind.

  4. 4

    Great post.

    This reminds me of the relatively recent “harassment PTSD” vs “army veteran PTSD” storm on Twitter. The dudebro attacking women for having PTSD were too stupid and too evil to realize that both types of PTSD are still PTSD. There is no, and can be no, hierarchy in subjective mental trauma.

    And it’s not just PTSD. All emotional responses are subjective. Those dudebros never served, so they don’t know that most soldiers don’t think that much about being in constant mortal danger. We are trained not to. The scariest thing for a soldier is usually to fail one’s commander or squad mates. Whereas for civilians being chewed out by your boss and coworkers is just another Monday.

    Definitions of what is courageous and what is frightening can flip in a matter of days, and yet those emotions never stop being valid. We’re not bloody machines that assign absolute values to each feeling and plot them on a graph. We don’t need to put “greater than” signs when we see someone suffering. We only need to help. Usually, that’s hard enough.

  5. 5

    I was also the person relentlessly abused at school and when I came home crying my mother would always tell me I was not blind, crippled. or starving so what was I crying about?

    She was a depression-era child who did see people starving and crippled by polio so she may have had a point, but the message to me was that my pain did not count.

    Love the story about the woman with crappy job saying you’d shake a stone out of your shoe.

  6. AMM

    I don’t think I was told “other people have it worse” when I was growing up. (“He just wants attention” was far more common, along with actions that said, “we don’t want to hear about it, it’s your problem”)

    However, now that I’ve been an adult long enough to see just how screwed-up my family was, I can see both how much it has damaged me and how much my brothers and my sisters were hurt, each of us in our own ways, and I can honestly say, I think the rest of my siblings “have it worse.”

    My parents were never able to relate to anyone except on a superficial level (though they could be very charming.) My oldest brother bore the brunt of my parents’ anger, especially my father’s (my father never physically abused any of us, but his anger was terrifying and he would smash things); it doesn’t surprise me that he has always been obsessed with guns and insecure in his masculinity. My second brother suffered from being the child my mother never wanted to have. The rest of us (and maybe my older brothers, too) suffered from my parents’ preference for girls. (They told us that each of us younger sons, before we were born, were “supposed to be a girl,” and each time, they had to scramble to come up with a boy’s name.) My sister suffered from it, too, but in a different way: she is the only one of us who has never had anything resembling an intimate relationship and she is the least willing of any of us to deal with anything emotional. For all that it hurt, I think I was better off for my parents’ emotionally ignoring me — at least they didn’t try to overwrite my personality with their own.

    All of us suffered the way the monkeys in the infamous Harry Harlow experiment did (the ones with the wire “mothers” and the terry-cloth “mothers”), with some extra screwings-up for some of us, but I think I’ve come closest of any of us to dealing with it. (I can at least talk about it, though not with my siblings.)

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