Please Stop Saying “It Could Be Worse”

Hanging around chronic health communities, it’s not uncommon to hear “it could be worse.” Sometimes it’s friends or family that say it to us, and sometimes we say it to each other. While the giver of the phrase is likely hoping some “perspective” will be helpful, it never plays out this way. “It could be worse” is not kind, supportive, or helpful.

The phrase “it could be worse”

There are many variations of “it could be worse,” like “at least you can still [...],” “at least it’s not [...],” or “look on the bright side [...].”

You might hear: “at least yours actually goes into remission,” “at least you only have it on your scalp,” “at least it’s only a few spots,” “at least it’s not on your face,” “at least you live somewhere warm,” “at least it didn’t start until you were older,” “at least your Dermatologist listens to you,” “at least you’re in a country with healthcare,” or “at least you have a partner who understands.”

Or maybe something like: “at least it’s not the worst skin condition,” “at least it’s not cancer,” “at least it’s not deadly,” “hey, look on the bright side, at least you’re not dead”... which all translate to “it could be worse.”

What’s wrong with others using this phrase?

When you say “it could be worse,” what you’re actually saying is “you shouldn’t be so upset,” “your suffering is not that bad,” or “you don’t have anything to complain about.” These phrases turn our suffering into something to feel shameful or guilty about.

While they may be said in an effort to lessen our suffering, what they actually do is dismiss it. These phrases invalidate our symptoms and our emotions. Instead of making us feel grateful, they make us feel selfish and judged like our pain and itching could somehow disappear if only we spent more time thinking about how bad other people have it.

The irony is, we all know it can get worse! We have lived it ourselves. Unless we were born with psoriasis, there was a time “before,” probably a time we think about a lot. A time when we could sleep through the night, when we felt comfortable in a bathing suit, when we didn’t stress about how we’d afford our prescriptions. Knowing it could be worse does not lessen suffering, it just places the blame for it at our feet.

Why this phrase is not the same as gratitude

Here’s where it gets tricky – many people will try to convince you that they’re only trying to help you be more grateful, more appreciative (or maybe you’ve convinced yourself that’s true). Focusing on what’s good and positive in your life is very healthy, but attempting to convince yourself you shouldn’t be suffering is not healthy.

Wanting people not to suffer is a lovely thing, but imparting guilt or shame for suffering in the first place is not the way to get there. You do not need permission to feel sad, lonely, itchy, hurt, or depressed.

There is no invisible hierarchy of suffering, with some threshold you have to reach before you can express your feelings. Gratitude is not about diminishing or dismissing what is difficult, it’s about giving thanks for all the good things you are blessed with. It comes from a place of kindness, not from a place of comparison.

It's important to not minimize what others are going through

Now that we have established suffering is not a competition, what’s a better approach? First off, don’t minimize someone’s feelings or symptoms.

Give love and support to that person. Remove any judgment and comparisons, and don’t attempt to dismiss anything they’re feeling.

It can be hard to listen when people are being truly honest about their pain, and it can make us want to push away these feelings of discomfort. But being present, showing up for that person, and accepting all their feelings as valid and deserving of love is how we heal.

What about you? Have you been told, "it could be worse?" How did you respond?

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