I was recently listening to a client invalidate her experience of emotional abuse in childhood by the “other people had it worse than me” sentiment and it dawned on me what we were dealing with here was not a passing thought but a full-blown strategy – one with gnarly roots and gangly, thorned branches. And it lays the foundation for the notorious Trauma Impostor Syndrome (a syndrome made notorious by me… just now).
I think you’ll find this sounds familiar. The strategy goes something like this:
X, Y, or Z trauma happened.
You aren’t able to label it as trauma (or you are but with a tinge of impostor syndrome).
When your therapist/family/friend identifies it as trauma and notes the ways in which your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings make sense given what you’ve been through, your strategy comes roaring out with a loud:
it wasn’t that bad because other people have had it a lot worse than me
I shouldn’t even claim this as a trauma – I’m basically just exaggerating it and am a total Impostor. I should go to jail
(Ok maybe not everyone thinks they should go to jail but I think you can see the guilty, shame-y essence of these thoughts.)
Some version of this has been said to me by sexual abuse survivors, sexual assault survivors, people whose parents verbally & emotionally abused them daily, and, well, literally by almost every client I’ve ever had.
I would love for us to divorce ourselves from the ways we rely on this logical fallacy to deny and invalidate our experiences. (P.S. I learned from my philosopher friend, Quentin, this actually has a real name: it’s the “not as bad” fallacy)
If you know me then you know I always like to start from a place of honoring the good and the strength which comes from any particular strategy – even one which seems harmful.
So let’s start there.
How does “other people had it worse than me” strategy help us?
- It helps us minimize and therefore lessen the pain of what happened to us (maybe?). If we say “it wasn’t that bad, could have been worse” then maybe that means it really wasn’t that bad! We begin believing it and hopefully, it helps actually lessen the pain.
- It makes the focus of our minds shift to other people. If we focus on others’ pain, it helps us avoid our own.
- Maybe it makes the people who harmed us also “not that bad”? It’s incredibly complicated when people we love or trust hurt us. Sometimes it’s easier just to deny the pain they caused. Then they aren’t so bad, right?
- There’s an element to this which does seem somewhat healthy – there’s potentially some gratitude built into this (“it could have been worse and I’m thankful it wasn’t”).
So what’s the problem with it?
Well here’s a few:
- It’s incredibly invalidating to the suffering you’ve experienced and are continuing to experience.
- If you’re suffering or engaging in behaviors common of trauma survivors (eating disorders, struggling in relationships, frequent & sudden mood shifts, harming yourself, disconnecting from yourself or others, etc) but you don’t identify as actually having had experienced trauma you might just believe there’s something really wrong with you. You’re not doing things which make sense in the context of trauma, you’re doing certain things, the logic goes, because you are a bad person or seriously defective.
- You may not get the right treatment. You might enter into therapy to deal with the relationship problems, the eating disorders, etc but not to help heal the underlying response to trauma.
- You might perpetuate this with others around you. You might hold other people to some arbitrary standard of what real trauma is and isn’t.
I hope by now I’m winning you over to the side of, at the very least, questioning the truth of this strategy. But, just in case, I’m going to add more fuel to the fire.
Let’s look at why it’s wrong:
- It’s literally a logical fallacy (“not as bad” fallacy – thank you, Quentin!)
- There is no objective “good, bad, worse, worst” scale – we are all making it up in our heads!
- All experience to some degree is subjective – what matters most is the impact it has on you.
I know saying all of this is not going to magically change the belief – gnarly roots and all that. But my hope is to inspire you to begin noticing these thoughts as they come up for you. Maybe you can start to say to yourself, “that thought isn’t actually helping to me right now.”
And when/if you want to shift the way you view your experiences: that’s what a good trauma therapist is for!
Share this article or tell someone what you’ve learned so we can help show people like you and people like my client that their pain matters.