How Comparison Leads to Shame and Prevents Healing

“I’m so much better now, and life is great!”

This simple, and mostly accurate, message is often present in my blog posts…and I have mixed feelings about it. Partly because my life is still quite messy and affected by trauma. But mostly, because I worry. I worry that the hope in my words will sometimes discourage those of you currently struggling with severe PTSD symptoms, depressive or anxious thoughts, or the sense of dread that you aren’t going to make it…or that you don’t want to even if you could.

If this describes you, even 3% of the time, I would like to say something: it’s not a competition.

It’s not a competition. It doesn’t really matter who has the worse trauma history or who is “doing recovery” better (e.g. using their coping skills the most consistently, hasn’t needed in-patient or partial hospitalization for the longest, etc.) It doesn’t really matter at all!

Tell me, why do we compare our trauma histories or recovery processes? The reason I’m most familiar with is to shame myself for having a hard time, at any given moment in my healing. Shame is a fantastic way to distract ourselves from the healing we need to do. It’s fantastic because shame screams that we aren’t worthy of feeling what we are feeling or struggling like we are struggling. Shame does not change how depressed we feel or stop us from struggling so hard. It just makes us feel worse about our depression and struggles to get through the day. Shame looks us in the eyes, in a gaze we can’t break, and says: “Not only are you [insert harsh, judgmental word] for feeling (or acting) [insert feeling or behavior], you are also [insert degrading belief about yourself].” Since we all love the topic of shame, let’s try a few, shall we?

“Not only are you ridiculous for feeling so sad, you are also never going to accomplish anything significant.”

“Not only are you weird for avoiding sex, you are also going to be terrified of sex for the rest of your life because of your messed up childhood.”

“Not only are you selfish for spending so much time in trauma treatment, you are also going to ruin your daughter’s childhood and put her in therapy, too.”

Notice how shame traps and paralyzes us? Shame offers no way out. If we really are doomed like the above sentences describe, what is there to strive for? What’s there to hope for?

So I worry that my posts that are hope-filled will end up discouraging some of you some of the time. With that in mind, here is my request:

Say “no” to comparison that only brings shame. Say “no!” Work less on being like me or others in trauma recovery, and work more on recognizing and saying “no” to comparison shame. Become an expert in recognizing the difference between guilt — which sometimes has a rightful place in our lives — and shame, which is almost never appropriate or helpful.

Guilt sometimes tells us the truth. “Anna, you are viewing your boyfriend as a thing to give you what you want, not as a person with his own needs.”

But shame? Shame usually tells us big, fat lies. “Anna, you are the most selfish, self-centered girlfriend ever, and you will never be capable of truly loving another person.”

What’s crazy about comparison is that it can go on and on and on, passing from one person to the next to the next, with no limit. Let’s take trauma survivors (who are freakin’ masters in comparison) for example:

Person A: “I was sexually abused, but it was by an uncle and only happened a few times. Person B, on the other hand, was sexually abused by her own dad and it went on for years! I don’t have anything to complain about (i.e. I shouldn’t feel as sad or angry as I do).”

Person B: “Yes, its true I was abused by my dad, and that’s bad. But, it eventually stopped when I became a pre-teen. Person C, though, was abused until she finally left her home at 19 years of age! So my abuse wasn’t THAT bad.”

Person C: “Well, yes. I was abused for my entire childhood, but it was only from one person. I heard Person D was abused by four different people, all of them family members! Can you imagine?! So I could have had it worse.”

Person D: “Yeah, it sucks that everyone around me seemed to have the hots for me. However, I did have a kind grandmother who loved me and gave me healthy attention. So at least I’m not like Person E, whose childhood was a pure hell-hole with abuse being the only constant!”

Person E: “I heard about a boy that was ritually abused by a cult of both family and non-family members until he was 25 years old, when he was finally freed! What could be worse than that? My story is bad, but I think ritual abuse is the worst kind of abuse! I don’t know how anyone comes back from that.”

You get the point. And believe me, person F will have something to say, too. But let’s just assume that — theoretically — we finally arrive at person Z. And person Z has had such a miserable life that she agrees; her abuse is officially THE WORST possible. Can you imagine how lonely person Z would be? How alone she would feel in her sadness, anger, confusion?

Why would person Z be so alone in her pain? It isn’t be because her abuse was the worst possible. It’s because persons A, B, C, D, etc. compared their own pain to hers. And they believed that their own pain wasn’t worth working through and healing from. Sadly, they decided they didn’t deserve compassion from themselves or others (or God). So they won’t know how to enter into person Z’s world of pain. They won’t be capable of identifying with person Z’s pain. They will, in fact, be scared of person Z herself.

And they won’t know how to help person Z because they never received help themselves. What does “help” even look like, they will wonder.

So person Z will be very lonely indeed. She won’t feel like wearing the fancy “Survivor of the Worst Possible Abuse” badge offered her. She would have much prefered some company and a hand to hold.

So bottom line: we are all part of the alphabet of pain. And when I say, “all,” I’m not just thinking of trauma survivors. If you are human, I have YOU in mind. (Sorry, zombies!) If you’ve struggled with moderate depression for reasons you aren’t sure of, work through that depression! You’ll then be able to lend a much more helpful hand to person A, B, or even Z than if you compare and shame yourself out of doing the work you need to do.

And let person Z give you a hug. If you do, your hug back will be more healing than you know.

thawingout

I am a Texan-born Bostonian who wants to understand how we get through hard things in life (aka trauma) using spirituality, meaningful work, life-giving hobbies, connection with other trauma survivors, friendships with non-traumatized people, animals, etc. I am a hospice social worker (LCSW) and I have a bunny named Nadia.

32 Replies to “How Comparison Leads to Shame and Prevents Healing

    1. Hey, Cassie! Thanks for the suggestion, and yes, I am familiar with Brene Brown! She is excellent and a great resource for this topic. And appreciate you reading…

    1. Oh, Derryla! Nice to hear from you! Thank you for reading and passing along the encouragement. Hugs to you! Hope you and Steve are well.

  1. For me, comparison is a good way to gauge WHERE I am in the process.

    If I was abused in x and y ways, but not in z ways (which were worse), I might look at people abused in x and y ways for “I’m not alone” reasons, but also to see how they’ve adjusted to life. If they have a wise perspective and they aren’t emotional cripples, maybe they have something from which I can glean. If they are nihilist in their outlook, maybe I have something they need.

    Maybe that person abused in z ways has a perspective I’m missing in trying to figure out my own crap.

    Maybe there’s someone who has been what I’ve been through and not a neurotic mess. Because that guy’s my hero.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mitch! What you are saying makes sense to me. Unlike comparison that leads to shame and prevents healing, the kind of comparison you are describing sounds life giving because you are looking to help or to be helped by other survivors. That’s totally different…so thanks for pointing that out! Wishing you courage in the process…

  2. This blog brings up some excellent points. My bf struggles with trauma so I will definitely show him this. I also deal with my own demons. It’s hard to know how to go about things and to stop that dreaded voice in your head… ugh!

    1. Hi, Shernide! Thank you for coming over to read and comment on my post. I know the topic of shame and trauma aren’t exactly…fun. And I’m sorry that your boyfriend and you know this all too well! It is indeed hard to “know how to go about things,” as you said. I hope you’ve found good counseling from someone who knows how to help with trauma (and “demon”) recovery! It’s worth facing down the demons when the time is right. Hugs and courage to you!

  3. Wow, you are amazing. Your compassion for others and courage to share is inspiring. You are so right about comparison and shame. We are all on different paths and comparing can be harmful. Hopefully those who are experiencing severe PTSD see your words as sources of hope and strength.

    1. Oh, thank you for the encouraging words, Tonya! They are much appreciated. I’m always honored when someone takes the time to read and comment on my writing. <3

  4. Life teaches us more than any school or university. Never forget that you made a milestone by writing about your own lesson learned, judo and keep it up 🙂 well written

    1. Oh, thank you, Dieter! That is so nice of you. Writing has a way of helping us clarify things for ourselves, doesn’t it? Keep writing yourself…

  5. We distract ourselves a whole lot with so many unnecessary things that we sometimes become the stumbling block on our own road of recovery. Your post is very healing and encouraging. Thank you.

    1. I agree, Mary! There are SO many ways we find to distract ourselves from hard emotional work…because it’s HARD work to do! I am thankful my post was healing to you in some way. Keep up the courage! And be in touch anytime.

  6. I cannot describe how deeply this affected me… because it’s so true. We are our own worst judges, and the shame builds a wall between healing and despair. Your words are eloquent and touching… and true. Thank you.

    1. Heather, thank you so much for the encouraging and kind words! It’s so nice to hear that what I wrote resonated with you and meant something. Your comment that “shame builds a wall between healing and despair…” — yes, well said! Seems like shame can be the guy who really pounds the nail in the coffin, making it so hard to get fresh, healing air. Anyway, thanks again for the comment!

    1. You are so welcome, Darcy! I’m thankful my thoughts on shame might be of help to you in some way. And considering the topic, I’m sorry you can relate to these kinds of challenges! :/ Hang in there, and be gentle with yourself.

  7. Thank you for this, Anna! Important words and reminders. I did some thinking on this while at L’Abri… Would love to chat with you about what resources you have found helpful 🙂

    1. Ah, thank you for reading and commenting, Heather! And you are welcome. I’m glad this piece was helpful in some way. I’m glad to chat – come find me! 🙂

  8. Very cool – drawing the line on shame and guilt. Good stuff.

    I had an internet guru who I never knew – i mean I totally grocked what he was laying down – but it was a totally one way type relationship. So, he went by the name “Jonathan Adam Pants” – no true story and he was very fame-a-phobic if you know what i mean – no really – ask the almighty Google if you don’t believe me.

    Anyway one of the things Jonathan liked to talk about was how spiritual healers are often abused as children – his guess was that the dark forces could feel their energy and they were drawn to destroy them.

    But the flipside of this is that these are the people who are first in line to be overcomers – yep like Biblical overcomers – Jonathan was a little twisted when he tried to get Biblical a lot of the time but on this one i really think he nailed it.

    His theory went like this – you got some emo teen and mom and dad take em to a counselor – counselor has a nice sheepskin on the wall but no practical experience – the kid is gonna totally check out quick. But one of these overcomers – yeah they can work the magic.

    Well that’s the theory – now you got to go make it work, Ms. Special. 😉

    1. I’ve been dubbed “Ms. Special?!” Well, alright then.

      Jonathan’s thoughts you shared are indeed interesting food for thought! I can see some truth in them, for sure! In my personal experience, God does indeed redeem the worst parts of our lives to bring about the best and most amazing qualities and gifts. Man, I wish the process wasn’t so hard, though!

      1. Jonathan (don’t forget the “Adam Pants” if you Google him) he is very different – good for recovering truthers – many won’t have a clue what he is talking about. He makes a leap at trying to understand Christians – but he’s outside the loop – does OK at understanding Jesus now n then. One great quote he had about Christianity and Christians – for me ymmv – ~’Jesus came here to teach people how to ride a bike (metaphorically) and Christians are trying to teach everyone how to ride Jesus’~. 🙂 Don’t like that one? You are a true Christian then – sorry, what else can I say. 😉

        Mostly he talks about chakras, spiritual healers, the Illuminati, hidden messages in MSM especially advertising, the torture of the individual by society and how to take that back – and he does this cute little Dr. Dolittle thing now n then – shares conversations he’s had with deer, his cat, spiders, etc. – like I said, he ain’t for everyone. 😉

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