My Pain, Your Pain

People just love to compare misfortune. People have lots of different reasons, and it’s worth looking at why just about all of them are bad ideas.

Some people like to compare their pain to someone else’s in order to claim a higher level of sympathy. “Oh, you broke your leg? Well, I broke BOTH legs, so give me more sympathy/attention/love/help/whatever.” This is, well, pretty obviously bad.

Some folks want to compare misfortune because they want to give themselves an elevated social status as a result of their reaction. “Oh, you broke your leg? I broke both legs, and you never heard me complain or ask for help. I guess that makes me better than you.” It was painful even to type that sentence ironically.

Then you have the other side of the spectrum – people who compare their pain to other people’s in order to devalue their own experience. “I know I lost both legs in that car accident, but there are people who lost both legs AND an arm, so I shouldn’t complain or I might be seen as dismissive of their pain and suffering.” At least this one is coming from a more altruistic place, but it’s still incorrect.

Look, here’s the reality. Everyone is going to endure some pain. Some people are, even in the most objective sense, going to go through rougher seas than others. But your pain isn’t relative to other people’s, it’s relative to your own life and circumstances.

Let me give you an extreme example: two people get into a car accident, and both of them lose their left hand. On the surface, this is the same thing – but if one of those people was a left-handed brain surgeon and the other one was a right-handed voice actor, their pain might not be the same! I actually experienced a real-life version of this when I worked in prosthetics. Two patients in the same month had almost the exact same injury, resulting in the loss of several fingers on one hand. For the first patient, he told me that the only real difference in his life was he changed how he made his coffee and bought sweatpants instead of jeans. The other patient was a violinist.

All this is to say that pain, suffering, loss and misfortune aren’t objective things. Not only could the exact same event be different levels of bad for different people, it might not even be bad for some folks! So trying to compare your roll of the dice to anyone else’s is a fool’s game to begin with. You can’t compare rotten apples to rotten oranges.

But on an even deeper level, even if there was some objective measure, it wouldn’t help you. Let’s say you could concretely determine that yes, you had in fact endured more “suffering points” than another person. This would fall into the category of information that’s “true, but not helpful.” Would knowing this help you lessen your pain? Solve your problems? Improve your circumstances?


Pain, in addition to being non-relative, is not zero-sum. The same is true of sympathy. There’s plenty to go around of both.

Be understanding of others. Be focused on yourself.

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