When it first hit me how bad the pandemic was going to get, a feeling of dread settled in my gut like a heavy ball of lead. That feeling is still there. It impacts my memory, my sleep, my appetite, my energy levels. There are many layers to this dread—it is not simply fear. It’s anger too, and frustration. A feeling of lost equilibrium, of the halting of forward motion.
I’m also okay. I know I’m okay. I know that compared to many others, I have so much to be grateful for.
“Compared to others” has become a taboo thing to say. I’ve seen beautiful Instagram posts from people like Glennon Doyle and Brené Brown, both of whom I respect and adore, encouraging us not to compare our situations to others’. I see it in comment sections too, when people compare their coronavirus struggles—“This isn’t the suffering Olympics!”
The thinking is that when we compare our suffering to others’, we shame ourselves for perfectly legitimate emotions. We’re all allowed to struggle. We’re allowed to feel all the feelings. We shouldn’t judge ourselves for feeling how we feel. All grief is valid. We should never compare suffering.
I am one-hundred percent on board with not shaming ourselves for how we feel. I want to make that clear. And I acknowledge that there is a wide field of psychologists and researchers who will tell you that comparing suffering is a bad idea.
But I disagree that we shouldn’t use comparison to gain perspective and pull ourselves out of a tough emotional spot. The idea of “downward comparison” was introduced in the 1980s as a social phenomenon whereby an individual compares an aspect of their social status to that of others who are worse off than them in order to feel subjectively better about their own position in the hierarchy. The theory has been debated because it doesn’t always account for nuances like accessibility, motivation, and opportunity.
In layman’s terms: Sometimes downward comparison doesn’t work because a person’s situation really is objectively the fucking worst and they have no means of helping themselves, so for fuck’s sake, don’t ask them to tell themselves, “Hey, it could always be worse!”
But, to flip that: For those of us who have privilege, our situation is most likely not “the worst.” It is absolutely reasonable to use downward comparison to cultivate a more optimistic outlook. It’s entirely possible for a person to tell themselves to stop complaining because, compared to many others, they actually have it pretty good. One can engage in this internal dialogue without curling up on the floor in a self-hating ball of shame. The goal isn’t shame; it’s perspective.
In my own experience with COVID-19, I have had some really difficult days. Mood-wise, there have been numerous panic attacks. There have been days when I only got myself out of bed because I knew my kids were watching and needed to see me behaving mostly normally. Days when the reason I took a shower was not to get clean, but was because I needed a private place to cry. That knot of dread still sits like a lead weight in my belly.
Logistics-wise, I have no idea what is next. I’m self-employed, living off of multiple small income streams, a couple of which were immediately choked off by the pandemic, and any of the others which may be choked off at any moment. My partner is 1400 miles away and I have no idea when I will see them again, as it’s not safe to fly. My kids’ schooling situation is uncertain for the coming year, as the area where I live is a weird mix of people socially distancing and wearing masks and others refusing masks and instead flagrantly breathing in each other’s faces. I used to have an idea of what to expect one month down the road. Now, anything is possible, and most potential outcomes are not outcomes I would look forward to.
I could sink into sadness. Sometimes I want to.
Instead, I compare. Yes, since the pandemic started I have had a few panic attacks and some listless, tearful days. And yet, compared to many, I am healthy both physically and mentally. I don’t rely on any medication whose supply could potentially be compromised. If I were to need medicine, either for my mental or physical health, I have a healthcare plan and providers nearby who would make sure I was taken care of. Compared to many, I am truly lucky. Reminding myself of this helps me pick myself up and keep going.
I’ve lost income, but I still have some income coming in. Compared to others who have lost their entire livelihoods, I am doing well. I’m lucky. It’s true that I don’t know what will happen next, but unlike many others, I have a support system that will prevent me or my children from ever going hungry, no matter how much money or how many material possessions we may lose.
I don’t know when I will see my partner again. But I think of military families who are often separated for a year or more; for people who are in different time zones than their loved ones; or even how hard it would be to have maintained this relationship 20 years ago when we wouldn’t have had access to the technology we use to keep our connection strong, or even 40 years ago when our beautiful queer relationship might not have been allowed at all. It could be so much worse.
I don’t know what will happen with my kids’ schooling, but I know many others have it so much worse. There are places in the world where kids didn’t have school even before the pandemic hit. We are okay. We have choices. This time without structured school, and whatever may come in the future, simply cannot be qualified as insurmountable suffering. The resources we had access to prior to the pandemic will still be there once the pandemic is done, and the truth is, we are privileged and we will be okay.
All of these so-called “downward comparisons” remind me to be grateful. I don’t love the term “downward comparison,” by the way, because it sounds like an expression of arrogance when that isn’t the point at all. The goal of downward comparison is not to conclude you’re better than anyone else—it’s to gain perspective and foster gratitude.
When that leaded ball of dread in my gut makes me want to curl into the fetal position and cry, comparing my own suffering to the more intense suffering of others gives me that much-needed perspective so I can not only feel more positive about my own situation, but so I can reach out and be of service to someone who is struggling more than I am.
I’m not ashamed of having bad days or admitting that I’m sad, that I’m grieving, that I wish things were different. No one should be. But it really is okay—beneficial, even—to compare. It really is true that perspective is everything.
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