It Could Always Be Worse
Have you ever had someone say that to you?
You’re having a bad day. You found out you have high blood pressure. You got into a car accident. Your company announced pay cuts. You’re frustrated, you’re tired, you need to vent, and so you meet up with friends or family for drinks and vent over beers; or you climb onto the ol’ Interwebs and post a gripe on your Facebook.
Then there’s always that asshole, someone just sitting there waiting for the opportunity to invalidate another person’s difficulties with those varying sets of words that always mean the same thing:
It could always be worse.
“Just remember there are people out there without homes;” “your health problems are nothing compared to people dying of cancer;” and “at least you have a job” are a few of the many varieties people throw out there.
They all have the same intention: to tell you to shut the fuck up, and to remind you that your life is always more fortunate than others. Even if it’s not (necessarily).
Well, I’m sure that not everyone has a purely malicious intention behind saying those evil and unnecessary words. Some people honestly – not sure why, but honestly – believe that by highlighting the misfortunes of others, that they are really doing a service to make you feel less like shit about your own situation.
This is such a social phenomenon (comparing others to ourselves in an effort to feel better about our worthless existences), that modern psychologists have given it a name: Downloading Social Comparison. It’s a little complicated, and more about people that intentionally seek the hardships of specific others to feel good about themselves (rather than to highlight it to another person in a general “other people have it worse” sense); but the concept is still in line with the same.
By downloading a look at another person’s life, our own issues seem paltry and petty by comparison. (Sometimes. I mean I have a few Facebook friends whose lives definitely make me feel like every time I think that I have my own shit together, I am reminded by their posts that I am actually – in reality – literally the most disorganized and unkempt person on the planet.)
Downloading Social Comparison is actually considered a factor in mental illness by many psychologists. Mental illness, and yet somehow the Nosy Nancys of the world think it’s a positive thing to point out the shit of another person’s even hypothetical and generalized situation every time you gripe about anything shitty that happens to you.
But what’s truly wrong with the “it could always be worse”-ers of the world is also very simple.
Is it possible that someone else has it worse off than you do? Very likely. Especially if you live in a privileged country, such as the United States (I say privileged in the sense that we have clean, potable water and Wifi just about everywhere you go).
Though to use that in an effort to stifle or push away a person’s natural and healthy feelings about their own personal experiences is – in a word – wrong. Sure, other people have it worse, and in particularly dark times it’s nice to remind ourselves to be grateful for the things we do actually continue to have through adversity, when others may not. But to always compare in an effort to forget or to shame a person’s complaints is like saying that their problems are trivial and unimportant, when in many cases they are anything but. It would be like telling someone they shouldn’t be upset about having to file for bankruptcy because there are some people who can’t afford a roof over their heads. Does the terribleness of others really make it any easier to deal with having to file for bankruptcy? I mean, really…
And anyway, aren’t we allowed to be upset about shitty stuff that happens to us, without having the shame and guilt of someone else’s worse hardships shoved down our fucking throats?
So this happened to me today, actually, which is what prompted this blog post. I posted a Facebook status about how after a year and a half, today was the first time since I was diagnosed with a wheat allergy that I actually felt like crying about it. I just wanted Girl Scout cookies so badly, and there was no way I could eat any of them. In response, someone told me that my gluten intolerance was better than dying of cancer.
Of course being allergic to wheat is better than dying of cancer. Of course it is. What kind of a person would even compare the two? But what I felt after reading that was exactly what that comment’s intention was to make me feel: shame. Shame for thinking that not being able to eat Thin Mints sucked. Shame for being sad that I can’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if I want without having to bake my own bread. Shame for it all, because somewhere out there other people have it worse. Somewhere out there a person is dying of cancer, and their dying thoughts are clouded by all the ungrateful assholes who sit around complaining that they are allergic to the ingredients in a delightful case of Caramel Delights.
How dare I have feelings about my own situation. It could always be worse.
I have one much simpler response to all of that…it’s simpler than explaining Downloading Social Comparison, and a lot easier than going into all the things that are wrong with trying to invalidate the feelings of others. Just one response, which goes like this: