Does this thinking sound familiar to you: “I can’t be disappointed we only got 2 embryos; my friend got zero!” There’s a term for it and it’s called comparative suffering. We have these thoughts in the TTC community all the time, even when the world isn’t upside down. In this piece we’ll talk about comparative suffering, how to overcome it and why it doesn’t help anyone.
By Elyse Ash
The TTC community has always had a comparative suffering problem. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture because we are well-aware that no matter how long we’ve been trying, how many failed treatments we’ve endured or how much we’ve lost, someone out there has had it worse. Much worse. Someone has tried for more years, had more miscarriages, gotten fewer eggs, fell into more debt…and on and on and on.
I so often hear women caveating their fertility journey with statements like, “Well, we were really lucky our second transfer worked!” Or, “Luckily my miscarriage was early at 6 weeks…so it wasn’t *that* bad.” Like…what!? Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we not allowed to feel pain just because someone else is experiencing pain too?
Now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and racial inequality protests, infertility can seem smaller than ever before. The world looks bleak, feels heavy and is desperately unfair as thousands of people are sick, grieving, protesting and fighting for change.
So compared to racism and a pandemic, your struggle with infertility might not feel incredibly important right now. But I’m here to tell you: that’s not true.
So what is comparative suffering?
In infertility and child loss communities, it’s an internal voice that oftentimes sounds like:
- “I can’t grieve my postponed IVF cycle because I know someone who just lost their job.”
- “I can’t be devastated about my missed miscarriage because I know someone who just lost their grandma to COVID.”
- “I shouldn’t be emotionally exhausted; I’m not one of the healthcare workers on the front line.”
- “I can’t be scared of my IUI not working because some protestors are scared for their lives.”
Comparative suffering is when you look at someone else who is having a challenge and minimize your own experience compared to their rough time. Brené Brown says:
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over an empty nest. I’m not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer…”
But here’s the thing about comparative suffering: it doesn’t actually make our suffering any lighter. In fact, it can sometimes make our suffering feel *heavier* because when we bury our needs and can’t put a voice to our hidden struggles, we often feel more exhausted, overwhelmed, and alone.
What if we flip this thinking around?
Are we ONLY allowed to feel joy if we have the Best Life Ever? Am I not allowed to enjoy a beer on the porch with my husband because somewhere Reese Witherspoon is enjoying a bespoke margarita from her private pool? Hell no! We don’t ever think this way, so why can’t we be struggling with something while also acknowledging that others are struggling as well?
So let’s all agree not to evaluate, rank and measure each other’s pain right now. Ok? What if we opt out of the Suffering Olympics and make a pact to lead with compassion instead? What if we can be devastated about our cancelled IVF transfer and also feel devastated about the murder of George Floyd? What if we can be sad about cycle day 1 coming AND also sad for our neighbor who is sick with COVID-19? What if all those things can be hard and true…what if there is enough love, space and attention for all of us to grieve?