From Comparative Suffering to Empathy in Today’s Crisis

When we are faced with stressful situations comparative suffering is triggered, especially during the Covid-19 crisis.

What should we do when this happens? Here is some wisdom from Brené Brown, a renowned research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy.

When you are in a situation of scarcity, loss & fear we should attend to our feelings and stop comparing them. Who has more, who has it better, what are they doing, and am I not allowed to do? What is crazy about comparison when triggered by fear and scarcity is that even our pain and our hurt are not immune to be assessed and ranked so, without thinking we start to rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel. I can’t be disappointed about my college graduation right now, who am I to be sad about not being able to have this great ceremony when others are dying or I can’t be afraid of being sick right now as there are people sicker than me or I can’t be scared for my children as there are homeless children out there that they have nowhere to sleep tonight. Why should I be tired and angry, I have a job now and so many people don’t. I get it, I do it, I fight with it, but this is not how emotion or affect works.

Emotions do not go away just because we send them a message “These feelings are inappropriate and don’t score high enough on the suffering board, please delete all feelings related to this, you are not in enough pain, thank you”. That’s not the way this works. The emotions that we feel when we deny them double up, they metastasise and not only do our feelings double up and grow, they invite shame over for the party, because now I think: “I am a bad person because I am sad or scared or lonely or frustrated or disappointed or annoyed and other people have it so much worse than me.”

This is really dangerous, so let us break down why.



The Myth of Comparative Suffering

The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite, that empathy is like “Pizza”, it has eight slices, so when you practice empathy with someone or even yourself there is less to go around. So if I am kind and gentle and loving towards myself about these feelings, I give myself permission to feel them and give myself some resources and energy and care around them, I will have less to give for the people who really need them, like the healthcare workers on the frontline or the grocery workers or the people who are delivering packages. When I am empathic with myself, there is less to go around because empathy is finite. FALSE, FALSE.

When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create MORE empathy. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world right now. The exhausted doctor in the A&E doesn’t benefit more if you can serve your kindness only for her and withhold it from yourself and from your co-worker who lost her job. The surest way to ensure you have a reserve of compassion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.


Empathy? Shame?

Let me break down how the shame and empathy works. First of all, empathy is the antidote to shame, that is an important piece to understand. If you put shame away and stuff it down with secrecy, silence and judgement keeping it quiet, shame grows exponentially in every corner of our lives. On the other hand, if you dazzle shame with empathy, shame cannot survive empathy. Empathy is a hostile environment for shame.

Empathy is an interesting emotion because it is another’s focused emotion, it draws our attention outward, towards another person’s experience. When we are truly practising empathy, our attention is fully focused on the other person and we are trying to understand their experience. We only have thoughts of ourselves in order to draw on how our experiences may help us understand what another person is going through. That’s why to have empathy for someone you don’t have to have experienced what they are experiencing, you just have to be able to connect in yourself to something that may lead to a similar feeling.

Shame is a very egocentric self-emotion, it draws our focus inward, our only concern with others is how others are judging us. Shame and empathy are incompatible and inversely correlated. When we feel shame, our inward focus overrides our ability to think about other people’s experiences, we become unable to offer empathy and we are incapable of processing information about that other person unless the information specifically relates to us. So, let’s stop ranking suffering, there is enough love and empathy to go around. Putting ourselves down because we are struggling but have it so much better than others right now can kill our empathy for others.



Perspective: a Function of Experience

What’s helpful is perspective. Complaining is OK, letting ourselves feel these hard emotions is important and mandatory to being empathetic people but we can also complain and moan with a little perspective. Hurt is hurt and every time we honour our own struggles and struggles of others by responding with empathy the healing that results affects all of us.

This is a note to parents, teachers and people who work with children. Perspective is a function of experience. Children can feel like their worlds are ending because their worlds are smaller than ours. Children don’t have the experience to have full perspective and understand the bigger picture of what is going on, so what we can do is let them feel, give them permission to feel and more importantly be super brave and let them see us feel and let them watch us navigate our feelings in awkward, brave and kind ways.

Let’s move away from comparative suffering. We don’t need to rank, order hurt and anger and pain and fear right now. We need to attend to it, love on it so it dissipates, and we put more empathy in the world.


Source: Brené Brown’s Podcast


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