Many of us have been in this situation. We have just lost a job, ended a relationship, been badly disappointed and when we talk about these things with someone close to us, they get to say the classic phrase; “Don’t worry, things could have been worse.”
We use it often because we do not know what else to say. However, is there any benefit at all in having someone tell us this, or in thinking it?
In addition to whether it is usable or not, there is plenty of evidence for its use. It is very common for us to compare our situations with others and we use them as a reference. Sometimes it can give some relief if you know that some people go through harder things than you do yourself.
It is as if your mind is desperately looking for something to cling to to say; “When you take everything into account, things are not as terrible as they could have been.”
It is a strange trend that most of us do and it has also been studied in the psychological field. We know that it is a form of adaptation strategy that we make frequent use of. Nevertheless, there are some nuances in this “lifesaver” that we should all keep in mind.
“It could have been worse” – it could rain
You are on your way home after work and your car breaks down. You get a call from Falck and wait. In your powerlessness, your brain is trying to find a way to comfort you. “So it could have been worse, it could rain!”. And strangely enough, this kind of thinking helps.
Another example might be a visit to the doctor. At the doctor’s you will be told that you have diabetes. Quite logically, you will be quite intimidated by hearing these words. The doctor, however, smiles reassuringly and says; “Don’t worry, it could be a lot worse. There are many diseases that are much more serious ”.
In these two examples, you can imagine yourself in two very different situations. In the first, the thought that the situation could be much worse provides a form of relief. The second example, however, is a “trap” we often fall into. What we are doing here is underestimating the seriousness of one situation while comparing it to another.
The fact that a doctor tells you that there are people who have much more complicated or harder illnesses than yours does not really help. What this strategy actually achieves is to underestimate the seriousness of someone’s particular situation.
In addition to this, there will be a danger of making them feel guilty because they have found relief in the thought that others are worse off than them. We can conclude that it is neither logical nor ethical to resort to this kind of comment.
“It could have been worse” – the phrase that undermines people’s experience
If there is one thing that we humans often make mistakes about, it is knowing how to support, accompany and help other people. When you are going through a difficult time, you usually do not want those around you who end up with the same problem or suffer from the loss you have experienced. All you want is some understanding and love.
However, there are many people who make use of these unwise comments and tell people that “it could have been worse”.
Let’s imagine you’ve been in a car accident. You got rid of some pain in your neck. If someone tells you that it could have been so much worse, it can create more anguish in your mind about coming out with worse consequences in the future. You may even be afraid to sit behind the wheel again.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine that you have been fired from your job. You will not be comforted by the thought that you could have suffered in more difficult circumstances. Why? Because all of these comments are to distract you from what you are experiencing right now.
They simply neutralize your emotions and the reality you are facing by comparing it to something that has nothing to do with you and that can not and should not create any relief in you. You will not get better from knowing that others are worse off than you.
The danger of this mindset
In a study conducted by Dr. Shelley Taylor and Joan Wood at the University of Texas, they came to some interesting conclusions according to this topic. There is something even more common than other people who tell you that “it could all have been worse”. The most common is that you actually say it to yourself.
What they concluded from this study was that it does not always help us to make use of this strategy of psychological adjustment in adversity. Furthermore, it can often make things worse if what you are going through is serious.
To understand this a little better we will give you an example. Let’s imagine a teenager who has been bullied throughout his high school years.
The young man finds solace in the thought that things could have been worse. For example, he has never been physically attacked. He finds solace in the fact that no one has found out what he was exposed to, neither his parents nor teachers.
However, it does not provide any real benefit. He believes he did not suffer the worst possible outcome. However, the reality of the situation is different.
By using this unhelpful strategy, he is actually undermining what he has been through. He confronts or does not try to deal with his disorder because he has underestimated it. He has put in place a defense mechanism to try to help himself. All he does, however, is avoid the trauma.
One could say that under specific circumstances, the comment “it could have been worse” might be quite useful. However, we must not ignore or trivialize people’s suffering, no matter how insignificant they may seem to you.
It is important to acknowledge and respect every situation that people go through. The short of the long is that if you do not understand that the situation that another person is experiencing can create real suffering and anguish in them, it will be very difficult for you to help.