Playing the Chronic Pain Comparison Game


I’ve been playing the chronic pain comparison game way too much lately. You know the one. The one where I compare myself to healthy people and am hit with, once again, how limited my life is. The one where I compare myself to other sick people and think how much better or worse off I am than them. Somehow or other it doesn’t matter if I am better or worse off than whoever I am thinking about – both seem to lead to uncomfortable feelings of jealousy or guilt or confusion or sadness.

I stayed away from the comparison game for a long time, and I am just recently jumping back into the area. Most of the time I don’t lie around thinking about all the things other people can do; I am much more concerned about what I cannot do and trying to make progress. I don’t really sit around thinking about all the people who are worse than me; I am much more concerned about how badly I am doing and what I can do about that.

But for some reason, as I have come into days of less pain, this comparison game has reared its ugly head, and I spend way too much time thinking about how my pain compares to other peoples’ pain or lack of pain.

Feeling better makes me miss the things that I cannot do almost more. I realize this is kind of unfair to say. Perhaps it isn’t even accurate. I bet the flaring me would argue this isn’t true and that the flaring me misses things more. But, in the moment, this is how I’m feeling. It’s like I have moved just a bit closer to things I want, they are just out of my reach, I can almost touch them with my fingertips….but not quite. And now that they are closer, I want them even more.

In another strange sense, feeling better makes me look at all the people with chronic pain and illness who I interact with online and consider either how much better they are doing than me or how much worse they are doing than me. And when I think of those who are doing so much worse than me, I feel guilty for wanting more than I have. And when I think about those who are doing better than me, I realize that I really have not come that far after all.

If this all sounds convoluted, it is just as convoluted in brain. My brain is playing weird crazy tricks on me where I start to invalidate my pain because of the circumstances of other people, and then turn around and feel like I have to validate how bad I’m actually still doing at the same time so people will remember that just because I’m less unwell, doesn’t mean I’m still not struggling.

And my clients tell me they feel crazy.

Obviously these brain games are not healthy, and this is not somewhere I like to camp out.

My friends once tried to invalidate a serious trial they were going through because of starving kids in Africa. They shared what they were going through and then stated they just shouldn’t be upset when there are people in the world who are starving.

But I called bullshit. Because comparisons like that never help. Starving kids in Africa are a huge concern that we need to care about. What they were going through was another separate and important concern that we also needed to care about.

I’m very good at giving encouraging words to other people. Not so great at remembering it or believing it for myself.

But in the end, I have to remember my own advice that our various circumstances and trials are separate issues. And when my trial is worse than yours, that doesn’t make your trial not count. And when your trial is worse than mine, that doesn’t mean mine doesn’t matter.  And in the end, it is a ridiculous waste of time and emotional energy to either validate or invalidate our own pain to our own selves, in our own minds, when we deal with that enough in the real world. Let’s give ourselves a break.

The moral of the story is to stop the crazy chronic pain comparison games. It only takes up energy we do not have to prove or disprove to ourselves what we never had to prove or disprove in the first place. And if that sentence didn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it only made sense to my brain in the moment, and I will probably have no idea what I meant tomorrow.


  1. Makes total sense to me! I’ve noticed that this tendency to compare myself to others happens frequently when I cruise around on Facebook. I’ve learned to actually “hide” some friends who have seemingly infinite amounts of energy and tell about all of their many accomplishments for the day…just can’t expose myself to such ugliness! 🙂 I’m better off not knowing all that they have done.

    Another thing I have learned recently is that just because I have chronic pain doesn’t mean that my cross to bear is worse than someone else’s. Sometimes I tend to think that people without pain have less problems than those of us with pain. It’s just not true. My cousin reminded me in a conversation recently that her mental pain is sometimes blinding and incapacitating, as is my physical pain. We all hurt.

    1. I have also hidden a bunch of my friends for the same reason. It does help. But maybe it just means I need to spend less time on facebook 🙂

      I definitely agree with what you say at the end. One of the interesting side effects that has come from being a counselor is realizing how big some of my blessings are when I see people who don’t have the things I take for granted. So true that we all hurt.

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