Grief is Competitive?

October 5, 2021

By Ken Barringer

It’s not a stretch to say our society is competitive. Competition can lead to comparison, which can lead to evaluation and assessment. There are benefits to competition; it can be motivating; drive us to be a better version of ourselves; teach us to be fair and ethical. Competition might also help us get more out of ourselves than we thought possible. However, when we call upon a competitive instinct in measuring our loss it’s very damaging. What does this mean? How often have you said, felt or heard; “it could be worse”, “my loss isn’t as bad as his”, “maybe I don’t have it so bad”.  While we may think these statements are helpful, we may also be taking a reductionist approach to our experience. Deep down we might know saying, feeling, or hearing these statements doesn’t feel good but, like many things, we’re conditioned to not question why we are doing what we’re doing. Let’s pause, exhale and question why we are saying what we are saying? How did we get here and why are we still here?  

Additionally, we may know of people who always have a “story worse than mine”. As a brilliant cartoon in the New Yorker explained: 

While we might not understand the goal of why people have the need for the “worse story in the room” (although we may make judgements about it) we must be careful not to use it as an opportunity to undermine our own story. Someone’s need for acknowledgment doesn’t mean we give up our need for acknowledgment. We can do both.

The basic premise of competitiveness is that for one to succeed, someone else cannot. We succeed at grief? How do we do that? By minimizing our pain? Whenever we minimize or suppress a feeling it must go somewhere and can’t just disappear as we hoped. Perhaps the pain will arrive in the form of toxic relationships or an unhealthy lifestyle. Perhaps the pain will arrive in the form of a little current of unhappiness that seems to be present more days than not. Trust the feeling that says, “Yours is yours, mine is mine. Our pain is relative to each of us”. 

The opposite of competition is cooperation. A simplistic definition of cooperation is, “for you to succeed, I must also succeed. The more we work together and support one another, the more success we can find.” Does this mean one can succeed at grief? That sounds a bit bizarre. However, if we want to reframe “success” as “validation of our own unique experience” maybe we are on to something. Competition is about a product; cooperation is about a process. Grief is a process

Embrace your story for what it means to you in that moment knowing the moment will change. The concern here is that whenever we compare our story of grief or loss, we immediately start shedding self-compassion. Suffering is suffering, our story is our story. It’s never a competition of who has is worse. Being compassionate to others doesn’t mean sacrificing self-compassionate. We can do both.