When comparisons are helpful

One of the ways in which people get through distressing situations- or at least one of the suggested DBT skills- is to compare oneself with others in worse situations. I think the use of comparisons can be a bit tricky. Here are some helpful and non-helpful uses of comparisons:

Not helpful:
Comparisons can become a way of criticizing oneself for not measuring up. This is often done in a harsh and punitive manner. It generally goes something like this:
“Other people are worse off than me, so why should I be so upset about x.”
“I should be able to get over myself, because other people have it worse off than me.”
“What I think or feel is not important given the fact that people are starving in Africa and we have to worry about global warming.”
“I’ve got to push on, be strong, and ignore how painful things are- because the world doesn’t have time for me.”

When I think of comparisons- in a helpful way- it often brings me to a recognition of something bigger. For me, there is an opportunity to soften and relax around discomfort and pain. It puts me in touch with other people’s sadness, struggles, and grief. When I’m in touch with this, I feel a sense of being connected. I admire what people have to go through, and I recognize something resilient.

When I was in graduate school, I complained a lot about my dissertation and the effort it took to study and pass my competency exams. I thought this was quite worthwhile to complain about- what student doesn’t stress about such things! The thing was, I had two colleagues who had disabilities. Hanging out with them gave me a different perspective about my own stress- not only did they have to get through graduate school, but they had to do so without being able to walk or without being able to see. Now that’s admirable, and something that I take for granted on a day-to-day basis. That really meant something to me in the grand scheme of things.

The thing is- graduate school was stressful- but the connection, friendship, and realities of others around me made it less so. My pain wasn’t more important or worse- it was what it was- but my complaining noises quieted down when I looked around me and recognized what others had to go through.