Have you ever found yourself talking to someone who shares with you all of their pain, suffering and troubles yet you cannot muster an ounce of empathy for them? Perhaps they think they are being targeted by the universe, creating even more pain for themselves? Perhaps their suffering is absolutely the worst on Earth?
Have you ever shared your worries and cares to someone, only to be told that you should be thankful because at least you aren’t like them, in their situation. At least you don’t have their afflictions. It’s hurtful and deflating. It adds insult to injury. Don’t they care?!
These scenarios occur when the offensive person has victimised themselves.
Who would want to victimise oneself? Why would you ever want to make yourself a victim? In short, no one would want to but it is something which is simple to do.
So often I catch myself thinking that my hardship is the worst, that the situations I am in are unique so that no one else would understand. By comparing my problems with others I isolate myself from them.
We may view ourselves as unique in our suffering. It’s typical to feel isolated by and tired of struggles. It’s even easier to compare it to others. One of the issues of comparison is that we are unable to do it in a fair and honest way.
We may feel that our own suffering is among the worst because we see our family or friends living their lives somewhat successfully. They don’t seem to be having to scrape together their food or stretch it out. They seem to be functional and healthy. Their relationships seem to be successful. The nasty trick is that even though we know our friends or family well, we will never be them. This is why our comparisons can never be truly fair. There is the illusion of knowing people but we will never know their whole past, present or future. And the parts that we do know, we forget easily.
If you ever doubt this, ask yourself this. What person do you present to others? It’s common to share about common troubles. We’ll complain about the traffic or the weather with a perfect stranger. We probably wouldn’t share our financial, health, relationship etc concerns with the same person. Often we present a polished version of ourselves to people, we spend a little more to impress or even show genuine care.
A good example of this is when you have a friend over for dinner. Even for a close friend you’d generally try to make a special dinner, one that maybe takes more time, or uses a superior cut of meat. You probably tidy the house and make sure the bathroom is clean. What is presented is not a realistic view of how you live or what your house is like. The struggles we share with others are often filtered and polished, even for close friends.
Another reason to why comparison is not a healthy process is that we are bias to ourselves because we know our struggles the best. This leads to excessive focus on our own issues which blows them out of proportion. Not only can’t we trust comparison because we don’t know the other’s plight, but also even if we knew all of the details we would still have an issue with warped scales. This is why our comparisons can never be truly honest.
So now we know we cannot trust our comparisons both because we do not know others deeply enough and because even if we did the comparison would be totally out of proportion.
By isolating ourselves from others in our suffering we disable others’ empathy.
We think we are doing ourselves justice by viewing our mountain from what feels like a realistic perspective.
But we aren’t. We simply aren’t. Everyone wants to feel connected, cared for and comforted, particularly during times of distress. By making ourselves the victims we become self focused and unreachable. Others may offer us support, they may offer help but we see them as incompetent to help because they don’t know my suffering.
Have you ever offered help to someone who obviously needs it, just to find that they reject it? This is discouraging to experience, and this discouragement is amplified when you later find them complaining not only of their condition but that no one helps, cares or visits.
When we focus on our own issues and isolate ourselves from others we block others opportunity to care for and empathise with us.
By isolating ourselves from others in our suffering we disable our own ability to empathise.
When we focus on our own issues we blind ourselves to the issues that others have. Taking off the blinkers of comparison helps us to find compassion and empathy for others. Removing the focus from ourselves helps others to empathise with us and also help for us to unite with our fellow humans.
By focusing on our own issues they can grow excessively and gain weight. Their heaviness becomes an unbearable burden which we feel we need to offload. Allowing our burdens to become all encompassing often opens the door for us to hijack conversations. As someone shares with us a pressing issue from their life, any slight relevance to our heavy burden becomes an open carriage for us to squeeze it into.
Sharing our burdens is something we are called to do. It is something which helps us, but be careful that you aren’t using ‘share your burdens’ as an excuse to hijack and un-lovingly turn the conversation back to you.
We are all hurting and we are all battling. When we realise this and employ genuine empathy it can help our burdens to be lighter. We find a commonality in humanity and it is releasing to realise that we are not being targeted by God or life or others. Truly our experience is common as a result of sin.
Brene Brown helps to define empathy and separate it from sympathy. I have found this video to be incredibly helpful to develop my own ability to empathise. Tip: avoid the phrase at least.