Why I don’t like “There are always people worse off”

I’m prone to depression (no surprise, if you’ve read a handful of the posts here). There are lots of ways to ‘handle’ a depressed person – both good, and bad. These have been discussed, at length, with various degrees of levity and research, by many parties smarter and more talented than me.  One of my current favorites is Hyperbole and a Half’s two-part take on depression which is well-worth the read, if you haven’t seen it.

One of the phrases that most bugs me however, is being counseled that “there are always people worse off”.  I’ve been told this any number of times about nearly any subject, including telling it to myself.  (I hate pregnancy – and tend to complain my way through it – whilst all the while knowing that as I rarely have major complications, and get only fairly minor motion sickess, that there are truly many people worse off… just for an example.)  I’ve decided that there is no benefit to being reminded of this however.  It’s exactly the same use as telling a child to eat everything on their plate “because children are starving in Africa”.  Whether that particular dinner gets eaten or not doesn’t change the terrible fact that there are children starving in Africa – and just about everywhere else.  What it does is make children feel guilty.  (And possibly lead to food hang-ups that lead to obesity, but that’s another post.) The same is true for “people worse off”.  Sure, there’s countless numbers of people worse off than me, in any given situation.  They don’t impact on my suffering though.  What it does is make me feel guilty about feeling bad, adding a negative emotion to existing negative emotions.  For someone already prone to going down the self-hate cycle, it’s only another gram of ‘proof’ that the self-hate feelings are, therefore, correct.

However, I heard a slightly different take on things, from an interview with Elizabeth Smart, kidnapping victim who’s released a book on her experience, My Story. Her take on things – even at the worst of the worst of her experience – was that “it could always get worse”. This statement, in contrast to the one above, doesn’t inspire guilt.  Maybe pessimism or anxiety (if you’re prone to reading “could” as “will”).  Mostly, though, it can inspire gratitude, which it did for her. Be thankful for what you have now, even when it seems impossibly hard – because it can always get worse. Instead of focusing on what you should (theoretically) be feeling, it instead shifts one’s focus of their feelings.  Gretchen Rubin mentions a similar way of thinking in her book The Happiness Project, where she focuses on turning a complaint into gratitude. (My step-grandfather was a master at this.  He genuinely loved paying bills, a task that many hate.  His love came from the gratitude that he was able to pay them, and gratitude for the things the bills represented.)

So, do me a favor.  If you know a person going through a hard time, please don’t remind them that millions of people are worse off than they are. Do feel free, however, to remind them that things can always get worse… and hopefully, to be grateful for at least some part of their current experience.

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