It Could Be Worse
As I write this, I am drinking tea from a favorite mug. At first glance, it looks like a traditional blue-and-white china pattern. But when you look closely, you will see killer robots, Godzilla, Bigfoot, zombies, and other agents of chaos and disaster. This mug is sold with the title “Things Could Be Worse.” I enjoy irony and a play on words, but this sentiment, which people often say, has the potential to be problematic.
Saying “it could be worse” when discussing one’s struggles can serve as a reminder to be grateful for what you have. Developing and maintaining gratitude has a multitude of benefits for the individual, for families and communities, and for society. The importance and benefits of gratitude, and practices to increase gratitude, have been well-documented and written about in a variety of scholarly and popular publications (as well as in previous posts on this site).
While thoughts and actions that highlight gratitude are generally recommended, an attitude of “it could be worse” has the potential to lead to problems. In particular, it can be problematic when this statement is accompanied by specifics about the bad situations the speaker is not in: I could be an earthquake victim in Syria, I could have a serious and incurable medical condition, I could be homeless, and the list goes on and on. If these thoughts lead to increased empathy and generosity toward those who are genuinely less fortunate, that is good for all. Or, if they lead to increased confidence that you can get through your current situation, that is good for you.
Oftentimes, however, when I hear clients say, “it could be worse”, they are in some ways criticizing themselves for having difficult feelings and/or invalidating and minimizing their own emotions and struggles. The fact that others are in pain does not imply that your own pain is wrong or undeserved. Imagine the response to statements like, “I’m happy that I aced my exam. But things could be better. I could be the person who won millions of dollars in the Powerball drawing. What do I have to be happy about?”
Emotions are individual experiences and using the lives and feelings of others as a way to measure, evaluate, and validate (or more often unintentionally invalidate) your own is not helpful to you or to the person you are comparing against. Things could always be worse. And things could always be better. There are always those who are in more difficult, and less difficult, situations. This has no bearing on the validity of your feelings. Let’s all work toward practicing gratitude for what we have, and toward maintaining empathy toward others as well as ourselves.
Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist