Suffering is not a zero-sum game

Lately I’ve been doing a 52-week Stoic training program based on this book


It’s a great book and I’m really, really enjoying the process.

That being said, one of the exercises from last week irked the shit out of me. So I thought I’d rant about it here.

The exercise is from Week 7 – Take a (much) broader perspective

In that exercise, you’re meant to compare your experience with the experiences of others. That’s admittedly a pretty simplified version of the exercise, but that’s the gist. Here’s some of the quotes that stood out to me as I was reading what I would have to do:


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As I was going through this exercise, it occurred to me that it must be extremely difficult to do this exercise when you have, like, actual problems. I have depression and anxiety, but I can admit that my life is comparatively pretty good. I have a roof over my head and access to affordable medication. My brain doesn’t make the right chemicals, but it pretty much works most of the time. I am, in the grand scheme of things, almost laughably privileged.

But what about the people who don’t have that privilege? Are they still allowed to experience their bad feelings? Or should they be taking things on the chin and reminding themselves that others have had it worse?

By this exercise’s logic, EVERYONE has someone who is suffering worse than them. People without health care Sierra Leone, people with no clean water in Flint, people who have no water at all in the Australian outback… none of them have the right to feel bad because someone has always had it worse. And that’s… kind of shitty.  

I actually kind of hated this exercise. Making misery out to be a zero-sum game kind of sucks – it makes me feel guilty for feeling anything but gratitude, and while that’s ok sometimes (gratitude is important) that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t recognise the bad.

What I’m basically saying is I don’t think it’s healthy to compare your suffering to others’.

Because there’s literally no way to feel better about yourself afterwards.

Just because other people have it bad doesn’t mean that what I’m feeling is completely irrelevant. Yes, people are experiencing chronic pain – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when I wake up with a migraine.

By telling myself that others have it worse, all I’m doing is invalidating my own experience and falling down a guilt spiral.

And, maybe, making it difficult to improve the situation? Because if it’s not objectively the worst thing in the world, at what point do we decide that it’s time to make the effort to change our circumstances? I think it’s difficult to take ownership of the situation that you’re in and take steps to get out of it if you’re telling yourself that “your experiences are not unique.”

They might not be unique, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not your experiences.

So here’s what I did instead of that exercise:

I spent every day thinking about a minor inconvenience that happened. I took a moment to let myself feel bad about it for whatever reason. The book actually recommends that you set a timer for the exercises and I went ahead and did that so that I wasn’t wallowing for too long.

Then, I thought about how other people had handled the situation that I had found myself in. How do other people handle rude people at the mall, panic attacks, etc. What’s their strategy? How can I take what they learned and apply it to my experience?

Because – and here’s the important part! – if my experiences aren’t unique that means that someone must have figured out how to deal with it.

That, to me, seems a little bit more healthy than just telling myself that the suffering spectrum is skewed in my favour and that I should be glad that things aren’t worse!



PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂

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