Some Reflections on “It Could Be Worse…”

I often hear people who are suffering or struggling say some variation of “It could be worse.” We say it to ourselves:

  • I shouldn’t complain, at least I don’t have [some illness worse than the one we’re discussing] 
  • My problems are small compared to all of the suffering in the world. 
  • At least my child is not [the victim of some horrible fate] I shouldn’t talk about [whatever issue she is having] 

Even worse we say it (or some variation) to, or about other people:

  • Hey, at least you have your health, right? 
  • I can’t believe she’s all worked up about [whatever the person is worked up about]. Seriously. What’s the big deal? Some people have real problems. 

There are a few fundamental problems with this type of talk, in my opinion. For one, people are have different levels of sensitivity to pain in the world. What’s a big deal to one person isn’t challenging at all to another, and it’s impossible for us to know everything behind a person’s story of suffering. We hear someone getting riled up about something that seems like no big deal to us, but we don’t know the deeper trauma underneath it all. Often the real thing the person is upset about is something he or she isn’t willing to reveal to us. Human beings are infinitely more complex than the circumstances we hear about. When we tell someone that it “could be worse” (even if we don’t use those words) we’re not listening. We’re not showing compassion. It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, pastor, teacher or friend, telling someone who needs your compassion that their problems could be worse is a quick way to get people to stop confiding in you. Saying “it could be worse” is a very quick way to shut down a conversation, and the best listeners and helpers always want to know more.

Another problem with “it could be worse” is that sometimes it does get worse. If we spend our lives saying “At least I didn’t suffer [unimaginably difficult fate]” and then that thing happens… then what? It’s not a competition. There are no suffering olympics, no grand prize for living through the most painful thing.

There’s an easy adjustment and course correction to “it could be worse” (and its many variations) and that course correction is simple: gratitude. 

When we are saying “It could be worse,” the value we’re trying to tap in to is gratitude. So instead of “At least I’m not suffering from x,y, or z” we can shift our focus to gratitude:

  • Even though I’m sick, I’m so thankful for the network of support I have. 
  • This tough time is teaching me something valuable, and I’m thankful for that.
  • I’m thankful for clean air to breathe and my warm house. 

If we’re listening to someone who says “It could be worse” about their own situation, we might consider doing two things:

  1. Validate both the sentiment that things could be worse, but also that their circumstances are valid “True, it could be worse, but it sounds like x is really affecting you. It’s ok to feel that way.”
  2. We might find ways to help bring gratitude in to the conversation.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful spiritual practices we can develop, it’s good for our physical health, our emotional health and our relationships. Rather than focusing on the negative “it could be worse,” make the subtle shift to the positive “I’m thankful because… ”  and see what you think.

  • Often when people say to others, “Count your blessings,” or “It could be worse.” because witnessing someone else’s pain evokes one’s own, and that’s painful. In an opaque effort to reduce one’s own pain, one admonishes the other person to buck up. This, inadvertent though it may be, serves no good purpose, as it blunts the sensitivity of the instrument of noticing and caring in both parties. The world needs more sensitivity, and not less.

    I’ve long thought “count your blessings,” was code for “discount your feelings.” And you are quite right that it’s not a competition; suffering isn’t relative. If it is one’s own, it’s the only suffering one feels. It matters..