Being able to view things with a sense of perspective is an important and invaluable capacity. It can help to generate empathy, engender a sense of gratitude or self-confidence, reduce stress and anxiety, and can make seemingly insurmountable obstacles feel less daunting. But it can also have a dark side. Like all skills and tools it can be used to create problems rather than solve them.
Placing our own struggles in context with similar struggles faced by others can not only enable us discover other potential methods or outcomes we might find useful but it can also help us to avoid falling into the trap of feeling hyperbolic amounts of martyrdom over our lot in life. Being told there were starving children in Africa might not have always made us more eager to finish all the food on our plates but it did plant the seed of a notion there were other people in the world who faced more grave difficulties.
We are always most aware of our own challenges, it is a natural result of the fact we lively solely inside the confines of our own skulls. And depending on our emotional state, level of energy, sense of confidence or experience, or access to resources our perception of those personal challenges can sometimes all too easily get off kilter. Outside comparisons help keep our perceptions honest either by acknowledging a challenge as truly difficult or by calling us out for indulging in a bit of excessive bemoaning.
This approach can also be taken too far, or even weaponized, to the point it distorts our perceptions in a toxic and debilitating direction. It can become an instrument of invalidation either of our own feelings or our perceptions of the feelings of others. We may all be susceptible to a bit of hyperbole when it comes to our own frustrations but that does not mean all frustrations or anxieties are false or fabricated.
We are allowed to feel frustrated. Even the most experienced and confident among us will always have our moments when we feel daunted or exasperated and there is nothing wrong with feeling those emotions and acknowledging them. The goal is to overcome them not make it seem like some form of weakness, deficiency, or deviance for them to exist at all.
Sometimes in an attempt to strive for perspective or decreased aggravation we can inadvertently end up making those feelings of uncertainty or frustration seem illegitimate. This can also wind up happening as an unintended result of trying to demonstrate understanding by offering up a similar shared example.
If someone expresses to us their consternation over the 5K word essay assignment they have just been given which is due next week by nodding and mentioning we were given a similar assignment last month it can show solidarity but can also been seen as an insinuation their perceived grievance is not really all that serious. True or not it may not be the support or commiseration they were seeking.
If they then offer up further aspects of the assignment which are making it feel arduous that is a pretty clear indication it is commiseration and support they are seeking, not for us to try and match them complaint for complaint.
And if we respond by informing them we had a 10K word assignment due in the same week not only are we engaging in ‘one-up-manship’ and making it all about us we are also inferring we are much more deserving of the support they are seeking. And more harmfully inferring their are less deserving.
Even if done in an attempt to calm someone down who seems to be working themselves into dangerous hysterics pointing out others have suffered worse is rarely as helpful as trying to unpack the challenge itself. Rather than pointing out the more demanding assignments of others unpacking the actual obstacles posed by the assignment to find more manageable feeling ways to tackle it invariably proves much more helpful in the long run.
Whether well intentioned or not diminishing someone’s experiences or perceptions by comparison to those of other people is an act of invalidation. It can sometimes be necessary to counter someone’s claim they are being far more horrendously beset than anyone else but, while they may be exaggerating to excess, they are allowed to have feelings of frustration.
The dismissive tone of this kind of counter comparison is fairly easy to spot and thus the potential invalidating impacts are not hard to understand. The more surreptitious and insidious ways comparisons can warp from being useful to being toxic is in how they can be used to absolve ourselves, or others, of accountability.
It’s okay we didn’t work out today, Bob hasn’t worked out in over a month. It’s okay we haven’t called our parents in a couple months, Susan barely calls her folks once a year. That joke we just shared isn’t that offensive, the stuff Kevin shares is far worse. Yeah, it’s upsetting that our significant other yells at us all the time and calls us stupid but at least they don’t hit us the way our sister’s ex-husband used to. We might have systemic racism in our country but we don’t have nearly as many Black deaths in police custody as certain other countries. Sure our region’s response to the COVID pandemic is a little all over the place but our death toll isn’t as high as…
There is some truth and comparative perspective in each statement. But when the goal is not the alleviation of excessive anxiety but rather the excusing and permitting of damaging behavior to continue we are not grounding perceptions in comparative context, we are enabling.
Ego preservation is a natural impulse. We want to see ourselves as having made the right decision and taken the right action. We don’t want to see ourselves as having gotten it wrong. In some cases this impulse can lead to a drive towards learning and growing as much as we possibly can. But those things are not always easy and looking for a less difficult option is, unfortunately, also a natural impulse. We don’t want to do the hard or uncomfortable things if we don’t absolutely have to.
Working out can be painful, maintaining familial connections can be draining, always being mindful of other’s feelings can feel suppressive. Tragically, the pain and fear of an abusive relationship can seem less frightening than the unknown of life without it especially the longer we are trapped in it and fear dominates our thinking all the more. Tackling pervasive cultural discrimination can seem impossible. Since no one currently knows definitively what is the ‘right’ way to eradicate the virus having a sense of getting it ‘less wrong’ can offer precious reassurance.
By contrast, for some working out is a source of enjoyment. Some families are able to make remaining connected feel virtually effortless. Some people just have a naturally harmonious sense of humor. Some people never know the agonies of domestic abuses. Some situations can seem completely safe and devoid of bigotry. And we all wish we could get the same national COVID report card as New Zealand.
Wanting things to be easier and envying those who are in more advantageous circumstances are completely natural feelings and reactions. Raising ourselves up through comparison to those in worse circumstances might seem like it improves our situation, it might even feel that way for short while, but it is in truth just as much an act of invalidation.
At the obvious level it invalidates the moral imperative which was pushing us towards action in the first place. But on the subtle, more deeply wounding, and longer lasting level it invalidates our sense of capability and self-worth. By making the obstacle an undefeatable villain we exonerate ourselves for any perceived inability and we also exonerate ourselves from trying under the implication we didn’t have any chance of succeeding in the first place.
It’s not the assumption of likely failure which does the damage, though it can certainly be disheartening. It is the assumption we were incapable of success to the point we were not even worthy of making an attempt, a kind of lack in self-confidence or sense of self-worth which inevitably seeps into other areas of our lives.
This sort of implied lack of worth can have an invalidating effect on the original goal being aspired to as well. Improved health isn’t really worth all the hassle. Families are a pain. People who get offended by a joke are just too sensitive. All relationships are abusive except the ones in movies. People are just racist, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re probably all going to get sick anyway…
When we get right down to it outside comparisons can be an invaluable tool to keep our perspectives anchored and balanced but like all tools they can also be used for ill, or warped into weapons. For a further breakdown of the dangers of ‘whataboutisms’ check out this article.
If you catch a version of the phrase “at least it’s not as bad as…” passing your lips or, if you’re quick, even forming behind them ask yourself what impact it is intended to have.
Are you empowering yourself or someone else by reducing anxiety?
Are you excusing and thereby enabling harmful behavior to continue?
Are you invalidating yourself or someone else by implying incapability?
We can’t, and won’t, always succeed. We learn and grow from trying. Discouraging or disqualifying ourselves, or others, from trying is not helping it is harming. And whether the comparison makes the challenge seem more surmountable or more impossible the comparison alone does not make the problem go away.
The only thing which does that is us, our actions. So make sure you are empowering yourself to take action and not disqualifying yourself from it through the use of excuses.