Comparative Suffering – Guest Writer Jennifer Sofie Gulick May

I am excited to share that I have a guest writer for today’s post.  Jennifer Sofie Gulick May is a dear friend of mine and a professional mental health counselor.  She has a wonderfully thoughtful, grounded and balanced way of looking at things.  Here, she shares insight about seeking self-empathy during difficult times:


It’s been about six weeks since we started physical distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. I’m a mental health counselor and my husband is a teacher. We have a 15 month old son. And like many families during the pandemic, we have been together under one roof for that entire time. Navigating the challenges of parenting and marriage can be difficult, even without the stress of a global pandemic. Now that the initial worried excitement has worn off, we are faced with real challenges you may be facing as well. I find that my husband and I are more irritable and likely to snap at each other. We easily fall into judging ourselves and others. We go to bed upset more often than we used to. I am carrying stress and anxiety in my body more than ever before. I feel a sense of anticipatory grief – the feeling of grief before an impending loss. Although, no one in my family has died of COVID-19, I fear that one of my loved ones will succumb to the illness. As a mental health counselor, I have a heightened awareness that this level of fear and stress has the potential to slowly degrade my health.

A friend of mine is currently pregnant with her second child. She shared with me that she rarely leaves the house anymore. Her husband does the grocery shopping and she works from home. We were discussing how this level of isolation may impact her emotional well being and she began telling me about comparative suffering. “Yes, I’m worried that it will eventually take a toll,” she said. “But there are other people out there that are suffering more.” This is a pervasive feeling that many of us understandably share. Unfortunately, it keeps us from feeling our own pain and suffering and can ultimately make things worse. Unprocessed feelings fester.

As a therapist, it is my role to normalize suffering. Humans frequently feel ashamed to admit when they are hurting or when they need help. My girlfriend, for example, is spending eight hours a day taking conference calls as a pharmacist working from home. She’s tired of sitting so long. She’s in her second trimester and worries about what to expect when giving birth to a baby during a pandemic. Like many of us, she rarely interacts with others outside of her family. We talked about the idea of walking with friends, six feet apart, in the outdoors. She shared her guilt for taking time for herself when her husband has been with their toddler for most of the day. We discussed how these factors could contribute to a decline in mental health if she does not take proactive measures to take care of herself. Her husband chimed in, “I couldn’t agree more!”

My friend’s assertion that other people are suffering more prevents her from acknowledging the suffering in her own experience. What many of us do not realize is that if we deny our own pain and discomfort it tends to get larger. Can you think of a time when you ignored a mountain of stress in your life, only to have it grow into something more dramatic later? Is it possible to have avoided the blow up by tending to your feelings earlier? Comparative suffering stops us from feeling our feelings.

Brené Brown recently discussed the topic of comparative suffering on her podcast, “Unlocked.” She emphasizes that emotions do not go away because we feel they are inappropriate. In fact, feelings tend to metastasize when denied. As our feelings grow we begin to feel shame for having feelings at all when “other people have it worse than me.” As a researcher and professor, Brené Brown has learned that empathy is the antidote to shame and when we practice empathy for ourselves and others, we create more empathy. In other words, if we attend to our own feelings, we will have more space to attend to the suffering of others.

Let’s stop ranking our suffering. It’s ok to not be ok. Acknowledge your suffering and see if you can turn toward yourself with kindness. When I take care of myself, I am a better wife and mother. But I needed the reminder.

Take a listen to Brené Brown’s podcast for yourself here:


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