The Other Comparison Trap

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Written by: Kendall Manwill, CSW

How many times have you felt sad or upset, sat down with someone to tell them about it, and
then immediately followed up your story with, “But I know other people have it much worse than me,”
or something else similar. Think about it. Do you do that? Do you disqualify your own feelings by
comparing them to others?
If your answer is yes, don’t worry, you’re completely normal. In fact, most of us do this to
varying degrees. Much attention has been placed recently on the comparison trap and how we use the
positive things in someone else’s life to make ourselves feel lesser or inferior. Alternatively, we also have
the tendency to compare our difficulties to another’s tragedies and then use this comparison to
disqualify our own feelings of grief or sadness. And while it is important to be sensitive and empathetic
to another’s life experience, that does not mean that your experience and your feelings are invalid or do
not matter. Let me say it again for those in the back: Your feelings and your experience matter. Period.
No qualifier necessary.
This does not mean that we should go around complaining about everything in our life that isn’t
perfect. Not only would that potentially alienate all your sources of support, but research shows it
actually makes you feel worse. However, it is possible to acknowledge all the good you have in your life
and still accept your own feelings of sadness or anger when they arise. How do you achieve that? Like all
things in life that require a change of thinking, it’s probably going to take some practice.
First, begin to notice your reactions when you hear or read someone else’s sad story. Do you
feel empathy? Great. Empathy is what allows us to understand and connect with others through our
experiences. Do you feel gratitude that you haven’t had the same terrible experience you’re reading
about? Also great. Being grateful for as much as possible in your own life is a powerful way to chase
away the darkness. Is that feeling of gratitude coupled with shame about something in your own life
that you’ve felt unhappy or frustrated with? Not so great. Keep the empathy, keep the gratitude, and
dismiss the shame. You can feel empathy for another, feel grateful for all you have, AND also feel sad or
angry. Someone else’s experience doesn’t disqualify yours. Make space for all of it.
Second, stop comparing. But wait, isn’t that impossible? To a certain extent, yes. Comparison is
how we make sense of ourselves and how we’re doing in this uncertain thing called life. It’s a perfectly
human and natural thing to do. It can even be beneficial if it’s encouraging us to do better or try new
things. However, with the advent of the internet and social media, we are exposed to much more than
our brains were designed for. We see so much heartache and misery out there in the world, more than
our brains are equipped to handle. Again, in so far as this exposure is resulting in the ability to show
greater empathy and understanding to those around you, as well as gratitude for your own
circumstances, then go for it. But if you notice that you are using others’ heartache and misery to shame
yourself into ignoring your own grief or unhappiness, then you probably need a break from all the
sources of comparison that are out there. Turn off the wifi, put down the phone, and turn your attention
inward.
Third, repeat as needed. The more you practice acknowledging and expressing your own feelings
without disqualifying statements, the easier it will become. The easiest way to practice is on others.

When someone else shares their heartache with you, don’t respond by telling them all the ways it could
be worse. Accept their feelings and empathize with them. Next time, when it’s you feeling the
heartache, accept your feelings and be gentle with yourself. You have the right to feel the way you feel,
no qualifying or disqualifying statements needed.

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