Does anybody win when we compare our suffering?

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For one of the women, it was a simple comment in a longer conversation. For the other, it was more like a bomb that detonated a relationship of more than a decade.

“I just said, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to see my parents again’, and she said, ‘Yeah, my friend was supposed to see her father in London, but her flight’s been cancelled’,” says a friend of mine.

Competitive suffering: some experts say we are experiencing what might be described as an emotional plague that is a byproduct of the viral one.Credit:Dionne Gain

She felt her brain swell. “What about just feeling bad for me?” says my friend, who hasn’t seen her parents and sister, with whom she’s very close and who live in the United States, in more than a year-and-a-half and has no idea when she will again. Her relative’s lack of compassion for her situation stunned her. “It has actually affected my relationship with her. My view of her has changed forever.”

Just hearing this made me feel less unhinged.

Because it was only a few weeks prior that I just about lost my mind after I told a relative of my own that my husband, myself and our three kids were isolating in our house for two weeks because of contact with someone who had COVID-19. And that we were not feeling our best.

It’s evolution: stress and uncertainty erode our empathy as we focus on self preservation, says clinical psychologist Caroline Hunt. Credit:Getty Images

“Well, there’s different types of isolation,” said my relative, who lives away from his extended family in Japan. “One could say I’ve been isolating, too.”

You’d think he’d just lunged at my first-born with a switchblade, so murderous was the rage that I felt course through my arms.

What, exactly, is going on with those of us who are feeling more Tony Soprano-esque than we ever used to when someone appears to be comparing their pain – or others’ pain – to our own?

According to some experts, we are experiencing what might be described as an emotional plague that is a byproduct of the viral one, and one that’s inflicting significant invisible harm: competitive suffering.

“There is a lot of it going on,” says Professor Caroline Hunt, president of the Australian Clinical Psychology Association. “All you have to do is indulge in Twitter every now and again, you see whole threads of people doing that ‘What, you think you got it bad? What about me?’”

Even within the same country, we’re all living wildly different pandemics depending on our circumstance. The single and widowed are being cowed by post-apocalyptic levels of silence, while families with small children are begging for solitude. The unemployed are up at night stressing about getting work, while frontline workers can’t sleep for the stress of doing it. We’re all suffering. But this isn’t stopping many of us from judging others for supposedly having an easier time of it.

One girlfriend of mine – married with two primary school-aged kids – tells me about a text she received the other day from a friend inquiring about how her “lockdown” was going.

“I just gave her my spiel, and then she said her spiel, and then she said ‘Are you working?’. I felt like there was maybe a bit of judgment there – ‘Well, it’s easier for people who aren’t working, you can homeschool and don’t have to focus on work’,” she says, adding that it triggers her own “insecurities” that she doesn’t currently work outside the home.

Why are so many of us resorting to the sort of one-upmanship more associated with the playground?

It’s evolution, says Karen Spielman, a general practitioner in Paddington, in Sydney’s inner city, who specialises in mental health.

“When we are at risk, our life is at risk, we become hyper-vigilant, so our primitive systems switch on to help us survive,” she says. “That is our fight, flight, fright response. It’s checking – ‘Oh are you OK? Am I OK?’ – what’s the situation, and how do I relate here, how do I calibrate my response? It’s a safety thing.”

But it’s an instinct that also erodes our capacity for empathy, says Hunt.

A popular meme.

“The science tells us that there is an impact of stress and uncertainty on empathy … When that fight-or-flight response kicks in, people are just so focused on that ‘I’m here to self-preserve, I don’t care about anything else at the moment’ [mentality]. Of course there’s an evolutionary base to that. If we didn’t have that, we might not have survived.”

But a failure to acknowledge each other’s pain can inflict real damage.

“As human beings, we need validation of our own suffering,” says Hunt. “We need to be listened to, we need to be understood. To not be validated is almost to get the message ‘We’re not interested in you, you don’t matter.’ That’s what’s so difficult. It’s a slight.”

Just how hurt we’ll be depends on our levels of support and mental wellness.

“I’ve got a few patients who are really quite isolated, and it’s very destructive to them,” says Spielman, referring to people whose families have not acknowledged that their existing medical conditions have been made worse by the pandemic. “There’s a lot of anxiety [as a result], and I think it turns in on themselves, they become very hopeless.”

This is because neglect can be a form of trauma, she says.

And what of those of us who are just fuming a bit more than we’d like because we think we’ve got it harder than others, when we in fact know nothing of the complexities of their existence?

Part of the problem might be “gratitude burnout”, which is what happens when we’re constantly looking after others and writing off our suffering as less than someone else’s – for instance, if they’re in a country ravaged by COVID-19 or are unemployed when we are not.

“If you’re not acknowledging that you’re suffering and have got needs, and are constantly looking after other people, you do get exhausted,” says Spielman.

And if we’re, say, wishing ill to the plants of those who have one-upped us in the pain stakes?

We might do well to consider that people who have “grown up [feeling] a little bit unsafe” might have a “freeze response, they shut down” in the face of other people’s needs, says Spielman.

Spielman’s number one tip – whether you’ve been one-upped or one-upped others – is to connect with others who will empathise with you, regardless of what your pain looks like.

“If you can sit down with somebody, a friend or a therapist or a trusted GP, and say ‘Jesus, I feel murderous, I really feel like this is unbearable’, you’re going to feel better when you walk out. That’s what’s going to make us feel better and give us the strength to keep going.”

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