Is there a hierarchy of suffering? Wrexham Counsellor, Kim, discusses.

“Oh it could be worse…”

“Well at least I haven’t got what she’s got…”

“You have one child so count yourself lucky…some don’t even get that”

“Other people have it worse than you”

These and many other similar phrases are probably very familiar to us: we may have heard them said to us or we may have said them to someone else, or to ourselves.  I have been on the receiving end of them inside and outside of the counselling room, on a personal and professional level…it implies that suffering is “graded” or “ranked”.

For instance I was in the gym with a fellow chronic back pain sufferer in a hospital.  My friend, I shall call her Jan, (not her real name) had to leave the gym as she felt she had less right to be there than the amputees who had just entered.  Jan felt that the amputees were suffering more than her, as they had a limb or two removed whereas she was intact and “just had pain”.  Jan was essentially saying her experience of living with pain for 20 years was of less value than the amputees loosing a limb.  It implies that she has no right to suffer or suffer as much as she is intact and yet Jan was suffering hugely.  She was unable to do many things she was once able to do due to pain.  She made changes in her home so she didn’t need to use the stairs, she couldn’t peel vegetables or use a tin opener due to painful spasms…I could go on. So for Jan, on the “suffering scale” an amputee is ranked higher than an individual (herself) in chronic pain.

I find this ranking and grading interesting.  It seems we have a mental hierarchy of what is “worse” to have and we compare our own suffering and the suffering of others on this hierarchy.  For instance I have heard someone say that in a family where the parents split up that the divorce “must have been worse” for the 8 year old than the 5 year old. I have also come across the assumption that someone living with cancer is suffering more than a person in chronic pain, that to miscarry several times is worse than once and many other examples.  This comparing and judging can also feel very competitive which was very apparent for me when I was a new mum- such as whose pregnancy or labour was the most traumatic.

Of most interest to me is that in all this comparing, judging and assuming it is like comparing apples with pears and also completely misses the similarities.   Do we really know if suffering a still birth is better or worse than experiencing a miscarriage; that the loss of a parent is any easier at certain ages; or that having cancer is better or worse than having chronic back pain; or that being blind is better or worse than the loss of a limb? I believe that the loss of a limb is very different to the loss of a child or parent and I also believe that my chronic pain is very different to Jan’s or anyone else.  Also what we consider to be awful (such as an amputation for example) may in fact be a hugely positive event for that other person in some cases.

However I also believe that the cause of suffering is in many ways irrelevant: regardless of the mechanism, someone is in pain, they are hurting very very deeply and the pain, sorrow, grief, anger and anything else experienced is unique to them and the meaning they attach to their experience.  Many of us feel “stupid” or “silly” with what we bring to counselling feeling that others have “bigger” problems more “worthwhile” for the attention of a counsellor.  The degree to which we are suffering cannot be measured in an objective way like we can temperature for instance.  Perhaps a more helpful way to view suffering is that we are all suffering or will at some point and that no ones suffering is more or less than anyone else, their expression of their suffering is also not right or wrong…it’s just different.


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