Put an End to Comparative Suffering

Today’s question:

I have been interacting with a colleague who always turns the conversation around to talk about himself – usually about how he has it worse than anyone else.  Though I really like this guy, I find myself getting defensive and frustrated when we get together because I anticipate that he will barely listen, will be very negative and that I’ll have to hear all about what’s going wrong in his life.  I never even get to finish telling my own story.  Help!

Thanks so much for this question!  The topic of what I call, “comparative suffering,” has come up multiple times over the past few days and this is a particularly good time of year to try to address it.

First, let’s dig into the way that I define comparative suffering – perhaps, it’s most easily explained by example:

Mary:  Oh, I’m so upset!  I have a hangnail.

John:  A hangnail?  That’s nothing.  My whole hand is throbbing.

Mary:  Your hand?  Sorry to hear that.  However, my hangnail is causing my arm to be so sore that I think it might fall off.

John:  Your arm?  Give it up!  My leg is also in constant pain.

…and on it goes!

At this rate, Mary and John will never get to engage in real discussion as they are so busy one-upping each other that they are not even listening to what is going on in the other’s life, let alone thinking about what they might be able to do to help.  Each person’s version of “awful” is more awful than the other’s.  It’s a vicious cycle that they seem unlikely to break.

If you have a person in your life who has a tendency to not only “awful-ize,” but also, to discount whatever it is you are talking about by usurping your line of conversation with a more terrible story of their own, I recommend the following:

  1. Give up trying to best one another. Instead of engaging in one-upmanship, create a space and give your friend or colleague room to share his/her issues.
  2. Don’t react with a story of your own. Instead, show that you are listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding, asking more questions and expressing empathy for whatever it is they are going through.
  3. Call ‘em on it. If you really need – or simply want – to share your situation with your friend or colleague and he/she begins to cut you off, tell him/her that you appreciate the stories and guidance they have to share, but for the moment, you need a little time to just vent and talk about your own set of circumstances.

Don’t forget, often times people respond with a story of their own to show you that they “get it.”  Try to have a little patience for the reaction you get from others while also ensuring that you have your own space to share your own trials and tribulations.

How have you handled these situations of comparative suffering?  Have you been a victim – or perpetrator – of this round-and-round game of one-upmanship?  Please take some time to share your experiences at CoffeeLunchCoffee.com.

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