When I was struggling with secondary infertility, I scoured the internet for anything that could help my husband and me have a sibling for our daughter, specifically, for stories of success and hope. I did find those, but more often than not, I came upon stories of women who just wanted one child and were experiencing the devastation of not being able to hold a baby in their arms because of infertility. I had one child, even though I desperately wanted another. Who was I to even talk about my own struggles?
So, I rarely talked about it. I let the anguish build. I’d run for miles to try to escape the physical and emotional pain of the familiar cramping every month, letting me know my body wasn’t working as it should. I’d avoid friends’ baby showers and not give a truthful reason for why I didn’t come. I even stayed away from women close to me who were pregnant. I was suffering from deep pain and longing, but after all, I told myself, it wasn’t as bad as others’ pain. I couldn’t ask for help when so many other women had it worse.
“At least you have a baby,” was all I could hear. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this depending on your situation: “It could always be worse,” “At least you have [fill-in-the-blank],” “It’s not that bad, did you hear about so-and-so?” Our culture is full of unhealthy comparisons, and the “who-has-it-worse” comparison is one of the most problematic.
The problem of comparison
There are mountains of research that indicate comparing ourselves to others can be detrimental to our mental and physical well-being. Psychology Today notes that depression and suicide rates are sky-high among college students at competitive colleges, and researchers trace the problem back to the endless comparisons among students as to who has the best grades or is the most accomplished athlete.
If comparing our accomplishments to those of others leads us to minimize their value, comparing our suffering to that of others creates a photo-negative effect: we minimize our pain. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that participants made judgments about how depressed they were by comparing their suffering to others. The study “found that participants' judgments of whether they were depressed or anxious were mainly predicted not by their symptoms' objective severity but rather by where participants ranked the severity of their symptoms in comparison with the believed symptoms of others.” In other words, they perceived their pain as less if they thought others were suffering more.
But what’s so bad about that? Isn’t this just having a positive attitude and practicing gratitude for what we do have? It may be easier to see the problem if you think about it in terms of a physical injury. If you minimized the pain of a broken ankle and walked on it for weeks, you would exacerbate the injury. In the same way, analyzing your emotional pain in relation to others’ can lead you to consider your personal suffering as minimal or invalid. This can mean that you do not seek out the help you need on an emotional, spiritual, or mental level.
Powering through the pain
I’ve often tried to power through times of suffering in my life because it was easy to find other people who had it worse, leading me to think my own feelings weren’t the “right” ones.
A big part of my work is following the news closely, which means I get to see all the terrible things that happen in this world on a daily basis. I also spend way too much time on social media, where I see my friends posting about truly awful things in their lives and asking for prayers. While I have my own pain and struggles daily, often I fall into the trap of failing to seek the help I need, whether that’s calling a friend or going for a run or seeing a doctor, because I immediately think my pain isn’t as bad as that of others.
When it came to my husband’s and my experience of secondary infertility, I told myself, “We don’t have it that bad.” I put off seeking out the kind of help I needed for years because I minimized my own pain. I should have been more open with my family and friends. I should have thought about seeing a trusted therapist. I should have sought advice on deepening my faith in times of suffering. I ended up doing all of those things, but wish I had done them sooner.
The monster of shame
One of the biggest struggles I face in this comparison game of “whose pain is the worst” is a feeling of shame: shame about acknowledging my suffering when I feel that my pain doesn’t hurt as much as someone else’s, that I wasn’t the one facing starvation in North Korea or whose loved ones drowned when a boat carrying refugees sank.
This kind of mindset invalidates suffering, pushing it aside while it builds and builds until it has the capacity to deeply wound an individual—both emotionally and physically.
As Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist and author, wrote recently for Time, suppressing emotions can lead not only depression and anxiety, but also to physical symptoms like stomach pain, heart disease, headaches, and insomnia. “Thwarting emotions is not good for mental or physical health. It’s like pressing on the gas and brakes of your car at the same time.”
Instead, learning how to recognize—whether on your own or with the help of a mental health professional—feelings of sadness, anger, or helplessness and working through them can make a huge difference in the way our bodies handle such emotions.
My husband and I struggled with infertility for a year and a half. I didn’t start telling anyone we were facing obstacles in building our family until well over a year into it. I had a lot of pent-up emotions with no outlets because I refused to acknowledge my pain. There was sadness and anger and feelings of worthlessness. But I had a child and others who really wanted one had none, I told myself, so I should just be grateful and power through it.
I felt like a patient in an emergency room being asked to “rate my pain on a scale of one to ten” by the nurse. “One” means no pain at all and is represented by a smiley face. “Ten” means unspeakable pain and is represented by a weeping, frowning face. Those who are suffering the most receive immediate care. I wanted that immediate help, but I was afraid that my pain on the scale wouldn’t measure up to someone else’s pain and then no one would care.
But I was wrong. When I first told a close friend about our struggles, she was so loving and compassionate. Then, I called up a family friend and just cried on the phone. She told me that my pain was totally OK to feel. I felt a burden had been lifted; at least some people knew my secret suffering and didn’t tell me to just suck it up.
We did end up having a second child, my miracle baby. I started getting questions about when we would have another, and I reached a breaking point. I could no longer hold it in, no matter how insignificant I felt my sufferings were in comparison to others. I started telling people what we went through and how devastating it was, that I wanted another child but could not imagine going through the process of “trying” for another one. That was the watershed moment: women in my circle of friends were also struggling with infertility and had no one to talk to about it. They felt they had to keep it to themselves because other people had it worse. That was when I realized that comparing my own pain to others was not only hurting me, but also closing off opportunities to be empathetic to others.
I’ve now had the opportunity to validate the feelings and emotions of people I know, feelings and emotions that are familiar to me because I felt them too, for so long. It feels like freedom.
Everyone will suffer at some point, but none of us deserve to have our sufferings dismissed as inconsequential or worthless. As a human being, you have so much worth. Your suffering is valid; your feelings matter. No comparisons should tell you otherwise.