Comparative Suffering and “First World Problems”

by | May 3, 2020 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts, Parenthood transitions | 29 comments

When I hear a theme appear in my group calls, workshops, and with my clients, I know we’re in the realm of the archetypal collective consciousness and it’s time to write about it here. Such has been the case these last few weeks around the idea of comparative suffering and the phrase “first world problems.”

Now let me be clear at the outset that the term “first world problems” originally meant minor problems that those with less pressing concerns frequently complain about. This could be anything from slow WiFi to forgetting your password to an online account, from an online delivery arriving later than expected to a chipped nail. Obviously, these are not real problems. They may be momentarily annoying or inconvenient but with a slight shift in perspective they would change from irritation to a non-issue.

What’s the perspective shift that ameliorates true first-world problems? The answer is in the question: perspective. When we remember that just a few years ago there was no such thing as Amazon 2-day delivery and in recent memory we had to access the internet through dialup (many of you don’t realize that ;)), irritation dissolves and re-emerges as gratitude.

However, the term “first world problems” is now frequently misused to try diminish real feelings around situations that are inherently painful, disappointing, frustrating or heartbreaking. When a child is crying – screaming even – because their Winnie-the-Pooh balloon flew away, a well-meaning parent who is having trouble tolerating the child’s big feelings might say something like, “It’s just a balloon. There are children who don’t have any toys at all.” Translation: Get over it. For the child whose entire world in that moment is the balloon, the child for whom that balloon represents their joy, their freedom, their connection to Pooh bear and the magic of the Hundred Acre Woods, the loss of the balloon is truly devastating, and to minimize it only leads the child to the belief that their feelings are “too much” or don’t matter.

At it happens, this is exactly what occurred at my son’s first birthday party, and the feelings of loss embedded themselves so deeply into the fabric of his psyche that it formed his first memory. He remembers feeling bereft as the balloon left his tiny hands and floated into the blue sky. He remembers looking longingly at Pooh in balloon form as he lifted further and further away. And I hope that he remembers how my husband and I comforted him (I hope we didn’t say something like, “Don’t worry! We’ll buy you another one” – although I can’t be sure of that). I hope what was translated into his young and malleable psyche is that it’s okay to cry when you lose something you love.

And as I reflect on it now, I wonder if the balloon also represented the end of his first year of life, that in some way that we can’t possibly understand with our still rudimentary understanding of psyche and the unconscious, if the grief that he expressed over the lost balloon was wrapped around the grief about sensing that he was no longer a little baby. I certainly grieved the loss of his babyhood around his first birthday, and knowing how highly sensitive he was and how much sadness he experienced around subsequent birthdays, it’s likely that he was feeling this grief as well. If we, as parents, had minimized his grief about the balloon, what message would we have been sending around grieving across the threshold of transitions?

The grief and overwhelm and anxiety that presents itself in our loved ones isn’t necessarily the full story. In fact, more often than not, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What we see is grief about a balloon; what’s underneath is grief about letting go of babyhood.

And that brings me to our current situation with this virus. I’m hearing comparative suffering every week in my work lately. I’m starting with examples from childhood because that’s often where the roots of comparative suffering began, and as we excavate the roots of our current beliefs about expressing pain and supporting others through their pain it’s always helpful to go back to the early years.

For example, a member of my 9-month course recently shared on a group call, “Guilt about the starving children in Africa was passed around the dinner table alongside the peas and carrots. Quite often when I expressed a difficult feeling, I was reminded of those children. Now when I feel sad, disappointed, frustrated, or bored I think, ‘What right do I have to feel these feelings when there are children are really suffering?'”

Suffering is suffering. Heartbreak doesn’t hurt any less because you have a lucrative job. Disappointment doesn’t leave less ache because you’re healthy.

Fast forward to our son who is now fifteen and struggling more than the rest of us in our little introverted family as he misses his life outside the home. For teenagers, this time of quarantine takes on a particular sting as everything inside of them is longing to individuate from the family unit and discover who they are in reference to people other than their parents. He misses seeing other teens. He misses learning in person from other adults. He misses the oxygen flow that happens when you leave the house and have real-life experiences. He misses everything about his life pre-virus.

As his mother, I feel his pain in my own heart, and at times my helplessness has felt unbearable. When we see our kids in pain we want to fix it, and yet this need to “fix” never feels helpful to the one in pain. Fixing can sounds like, “Think about the kids who are stuck at home right now without even a yard to run around in. Think about the kids whose parents have covid-19.” Is offering perspective and encouraging our loved ones to orient toward gratitude helpful? Yes, but it’s not helpful in the moment that someone is expressing their pain and heartbreak.

Pain only needs one thing: to be heard, to be held, to be validated. My son – or any of my loved ones who are in pain – needs me to move closer to him, to check in with him daily, to connect with him in ways that I haven’t connected previously. Once given full space to feel the depth and range of his feelings, he will naturally orient toward perspective and gratitude. But it can’t come from me. No matter what the pain is – whether it’s yours or another – in the moment of pain the only loving response is to say, in word and action, “I hear you. I’m with you. Of course you’re hurting.”

“Comparative suffering”, as Brené Brown brilliantly names it, is yet another way that we invalidate our feelings. The bottom line is that you’re always going to find someone who “has it worse” than you; there will always be someone in worse financial or physical circumstances. Does that mean unless you’re on your deathbed or homeless you don’t have a right to feel your overwhelm, disappointment, grief, heartache, frustration, or fear? Of course not.

We start where we are, and from the place of being witnessed and validating ourselves, we shift into another space. This is how we heal. This is how we fill our well of self. And from this place of fullness that arises from being seen, we naturally open up to other perspectives and shift into a mindset of generosity. When we see ourselves, we see the world. From self-compassion, we bring compassion to others. When we heal ourselves, we bring our healing into the world.



  1. I totally felt this. Not about the coronavirus, but about an experience I had a few years ago. My family bought a house in Santa Rosa, California in the summer of 2017, and it burned down in the wildfires that fall. We were all there and evacuated at two in the morning. Because it was a winter house to have because my grandmother has to be somewhere warm in the winter, we still had our regular house in Alaska. I, personally, didn’t lose a lot of material stuff that I loved like the rest of my family did, and there were so many people who were left homeless or whose loved ones died, and people who actually died. Now a little over two years later, I still feel like I have trauma from that night, but I have been told it’s over for two years and I was luckier than most people. But the fact remains that it haunts me to this day the fact that if we were even ten minutes later, we wouldn’t have made it out.

    On a separate, but related note, I’ve had a lot of anxiety about an episode of Bones where my favorite character (Dr. Sweets) is killed. To be fair, it’s been connected with a few traumas I’ve had in the last while, because my mom first told me about it after we had to put our dog down in 2016, we were getting close to that episode when the fire happened, I almost accidentally watched that scene a day or two after the fire because of YouTube auto play, and I was alone, and because of the fire, and then the fire anniversary, I never actually saw it until last September. My mom has said to me “it’s just a TV show”, which I know, but I also know that for whatever reason I’ve had a lot of anxiety surrounding it. I know it has to because it’s tied to traumatic events in my head, and/or because the character represents something about me or that I’m afraid of or something (plus the fact that I have a crush on his actor). It’s interesting to note that the character suffered childhood trauma in the form of abuse and I suffered childhood trauma in the form of illness, but I still feel weird talking about it, or feeling the way I do about it because it is a TV show, and no one actually died. I can go back and watch earlier seasons any time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of my intrusive thoughts have had something to do with him and his actor. I just can’t figure out the metaphor.

    • Surviving a fire is a very painful and scary experience, and nobody has the right to tell you that you should be over it by now or to simply focus on gratitude. I’m so sorry that you went through this. It sounds truly terrifying.

  2. Thank you Sheryl for giving us permission to be free of the comparative suffering vicious cycle. I’m definitely surrounded by people who love using comparative suffering as a default way to check our privilege and therefore we don’t have the right to complain or be upset. As you said, doing a perspective shift based on gratitude is healing and empowering, and you’re right that’s very different from comparative suffering. Thank you for teaching me that term, now I can actually name this behavior! Frankly, I’m going to snap if I’m not allowed space to be upset and grumpy about my own circumstances!

    Also I’m sure I come across as heartless and uncaring to people when I’m not as emotionally invested or bleeding my heart over horrible news or suffering. There is horrible things coming to light everyday, and I just don’t have the emotional capacity anymore to hear about another tragic thing nor have the energy to agonize over how awful something is with someone. It’s not that I don’t care at all, I have strong beliefs on social issues and often volunteer and donate money and items to causes. Yet I feel self conscious and guilty. I even feel guilty when after I’ve reached my limit and I change the subject to something light hearted and silly, I wonder after if people think I’m uncaring and ignorant. I just need a break from pandemic news and tragedies. I’m constantly deleting emails from well meaning family, friends and colleagues – and definitely newsletters that trigger my mental space. Sorry for the long rant! Thank you Sheryl for this liberating post!!

    • You have very right to delete emails and protect your mental space, as there’s only so much focus on tragedy that any of us can tolerate. This isn’t heartless at all; it’s wise and it frees up your space to focus on calm and to be of service however you can.

  3. This is so delicate. It’s such a difficult thing for me to allow myself to feel my feelings and validate then, I feel a lot of shame and guilt around my feelings as if I didn’t have the right to feel them or worse, they don’t matter, translating in me having no worth… It’s difficult for me to go against this and it can be exhausting for me to actually allow myself to feel them; I always have a reason not to feel them or to invalidate them and shame and blame myself for feeling the way I do, be as overreacting or ‘wanting to feel hurt’… I feel desperate sometimes when I’m going through it because it literally feels like it’s not worth it, I’m not worth it, ‘don’t feel it’, and the more I allow myself to feel the more it hurts and it feels unbearable. I feel like I’m in a trap, as if I know I need to feel my feelings but can’t because I don’t let me and/or when I push through it they feel too intense and I can’t take it.
    I try taking it bit by bit and I have a hard time letting it go because I try to dig them up, forcing myself to feel them as “I know I have to feel them”, but it doesn’t work like that.
    It’s so confusing, I try to let myself feel the moment and realise that it’s okay to not understand it all now, and as upsetting as it is to realise that it’ll take me some time to feel my feelings – and I get anxious about it – I make sure to tell myself that I’ll always make time for me, no matter how old I am.
    Quarantine has been hard for me since I have a lot of free time and some feelings try to come up and as I can’t deal with them I tend to shovel them down and I always leave these moments with a feeling of confusion, despair and disappointment but on the other hand I try cultivating healthy habits such as meditation and practicing self compassion.

    • Everything you’re describing is normal, Diego. Often when the shame around feeling is intense it can be extraordinarily helpful to work with a skilled and compassionate therapist who can walk alongside you as you slowly open to these painful places. We’re not meant to heal alone.

  4. This hits very close to home. This is my first post on a forum as I can sometimes have a hard time putting my feelings into an “essay”, so I’ll write a poem. It might not be perfect, and that’s okay, but it what’s cane from my heart.

    After my first panic attack, I’ve never been quite the same
    I have all these intrusive thoughts, “is life just a game”
    I realized that I have had anxiety all my life
    Which I guess why life right now feels “normal”, despite all the strife
    Always feeling guilty feeling I shouldn’t compare
    Yet, I try to remember that in regards to my feelings, I should be aware
    I have been trying more to connect
    I’ve been trying to make my thoughts more direct
    But then I get an anxious thought one day out of the blue
    When equates to five more days of feeling out of it without a clue
    Then I began to spiral in my thoughts thinking I must be going crazy
    Telling myself that I probably will if I sit here thinking while being lazy
    But yet, none of my problems seem to be spacious
    Because my heart goes out to all those out there who don’t have time to be anxious

    I always worry that I will never go back to how I was before my anxiety attack and it’s scary. For the first time I experienced disassociation and I grew an intense fear to bridges and driving because I had new intrusive thoughts of “what if I drive over that”. Thankfully the fear of bridges has diminished but I still struggle with the thought “what if I go crazy/lose control and hurt myself” “what if I obsess about this so much that I lose my mind”. My therapist says it’s passive suicidal thoughts, but they’re very scary. I hate it. It completely ruins my day. Do you have any advice on that? And do you know why our brains think like that sometimes?

  5. So beautifully written as always. Thank you! I shared briefly when I took your Trust Yourself course that I grew up with two younger brothers with special needs and have developed what feels like an engrained habit to dismiss any of my own needs when comparing myself to them and what they don’t have and are not able to do and experience. I can’t express enough how much your guidance has helped me to break those cycles and find my inner loving and validating voice. I so deeply wish everyone wellness and the space to practice contacting the kindness we all hold within!

    • Ah, yes, such a poignant example of how comparative suffering shows up with siblings. Thank you for being here!

  6. Thank you for this. I have an 8 month old son who loves to be around people and it breaks my heart to see him light up when family visits through the window. It’s painful to think our family is missing these special moments in his first year.

    And even though he is a baby, I can see that he has pain from this too.

    May we all give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling during this time.

    • May we, indeed. I can feel your and your son’s pain and how sad it is that your family is missing these special moments. Holding ourselves in the pain is the only way through.

  7. Sometimes I feel you are inside my mind. Tomorrow is my birthday and it feels like magic that this article links to the one about your son’s 7th birthday. I have been so bereft with sadness the past few days and I couldn’t place it. I had some awareness that perhaps it was because my birthday is tomorrow, but not until today during meditation did i truly let the grief of aging/time passing wash over me. I have been crying (a good cry) for about an hour now. I clicked on your article and with it you did just what it says. You validated this pain I am in. I feel held. I am grieving today, and I’ll be ready to celebrate my life tomorrow.

    • Beautiful, Jamie. It’s the secret formula for birthdays, especially for highly sensitive people: grieve the day before so that you can open to joy and celebration the day of. And happy birthday :).

  8. This is a great post. I think minimizing someone’s pain by using comparative suffering is a defense mechanism against our own feelings of inadequacy, like you mentioned with the urge to “fix” and feeling helpless. If we feel inadequate because we can’t fix another’s suffering, we might lash out by saying “you shouldn’t be suffering” (a.k.a your suffering makes me feel inadequate because i can’t do anything about it, or it means I’m not good enough because you’re feeling it.) Its wise to recognize if that is happening.

    I appreciate that you say: “Once given full space to feel the depth and range of his feelings, he will naturally orient toward perspective and gratitude”

    • Beautiful reflections, Lianna. Thank you.

  9. hello Sheryl!
    Thank you so much for all the incredible posts helping us understand our relationships and ourselves during corona! however, I had a question in regards to boredom during this time and in other times in relationships….so as of now all my boyfriend and I can do is talk on the phone which is difficult and when I get to see him all we can really do or at least have done is been able to take lots of walks which are wonderful but really spikes my anxiety when I feel a little bored….he is everything I’ve ever wanted has lived the most interesting and extraordinary life and we have no red flags….however I worry that those feelings of boredom mean we’re doomed or if they are normal and something I should let pass considering he is so amazing and I know that everything else I need is there….just looking for a little insight and again thank you so much for your kind and wise words!

      • Thank you! I just worry constantly “is he funny enough” “is he cute enough” “is he fun enough” “is he interesting enough” do these things sound like projections or is there something lacking in my relationship?

        • Hi Emily,

          They’re projections. It’s hard to see at first, but all of these “enough” thoughts point to yourself: “Am *I* enough? Am *I* interesting?” They usually mean we’re looking to our partners to make us feel alive (to keep life exciting and full of purpose) instead of sourcing that aliveness from within. I realized this in myself recently as well, and it really shifted my perspective! I focus on making my own life interesting and fun, and I no longer ruminate on whether my partner is “enough” for me. Of course, this is a practice (not a one-time deal), and we need to remind ourselves often!

          • Thank you so much! It’s like I can’t even just talk to him without feeling the weight of the boring projections!!! Thank you for your wisdom!

            • You’re welcome! The amazing thing is, once I started focusing on myself more and enriching my own life, we are much more connected and in sync. It really makes a difference:)

              • Yeah! I guess I feel terrible when sometimes my relationship feels a little boring and when I feel less than excited about our nightly phone calls and same as always walks……it’s the person he is I love and that makes working on our relationship all the more worth it!

              • Do you think it’s fair to say I putting too much of a projection on him to be fun and exciting and should start appreciating him for who he is?

                • Absolutely! Challenge yourself to bring fun and excitement into the relationship instead of relying on him, and your perspective might change:)

  10. Yes, exactly! I have seen this with coronavirus: when someone expresses frustration, sadness, loneliness, etc, in relation to being stuck at home, the response is: “At least you don’t have to risk your life going in to work every day.” While that is true, and it’s important to recognize the sacrifices so many people are making to keep the country (world) running, that doesn’t detract from the difficulty in being stuck at home. People struggling with mental health may be struggling to stay afloat, their anxiety and depression becoming overwhelming. People who live alone may be unspeakably lonely. People who live with domestic violence may be in danger and aching physically and emotionally. Suffering is suffering – it doesn’t need to be a competition.

    • Beautifully and wisely expressed, A. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for this beautiful reminder Sheryl. I keep beating myself up about feeling irritated with my children (“be grateful, at least you have children!!”) and for being frustrated with my husband’s long work hours (again – “at least he has a job and a source of income!”) I shout at myself to quit winging and to find something positive in every situation.

    It’s lovely to be reminded that feeling this way is legitimate and that I need to give myself loving space to feel the irritation, frustration and boredom before I come up with the gratitude list ????
    Thank you


    • YES! Feel the feelings first, then the gratitude list :).


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