Competition and comparison are cornerstones of human experience. Everywhere you look, there is a keeping up with Jones’ or Kardashian’s mentality. From fashion to music to makeup to diet to crappy lifestyle choices, society feels the need to be as good, or better, than everyone else.
Sadly for those whose lived experience includes trauma or mental health concerns, the one-upmanship can be devastating. I have heard from many survivors who share tales of one-upmanship in group therapy settings, in conversations with friends and family and in treatment facilities.
I recall a situation that occurred in a class I taught. A student became agitated and hateful when anyone else in the room shared his or her experience. This person would begin crying and tell others that they were faking whatever their diagnosis was, etc. At this juncture, I stopped the class to redirect. I do not allow this type of interaction. The conversation goes something along the lines of: “Each of us has a unique experience of walking through this world and for each of us at any given time, that experience can be painful. It is our job to be supportive of one another in this setting. If you find yourself unable to do that, please leave. We will listen respectfully as each person shares, including you but we will not hurt one another through comparison and judgment.”
This need to be superior in illness is baffling in many ways. There is no award for “Sickest Amongst the Sick”. The label of bipolar, schizophrenic, dissociative, rape survivor or domestic violence survivor is not a badge of honor to fight over. The experiences that lead to those realities are not filled with joy. So why covet them?
It can be a means of getting one’s needs met. For those without a strong support system, it can be a way of garnering support, affection and feeling cared for. It can be a way of feeling empowered while internally feeling weak or vulnerable. It can be a means of inflicting as much pain as we are feeling. I conducted a quick poll on social media and asked this question: Why do you think that people engage in one-upmanship of illness or lived traumatic experience? Here were some of the responses:
“What appears to be engaging in one-upmanship, may be a clumsy attempt at sympathizing. You want to be comforting yet you don’t know what to say or you don’t want to fix. What you want to do is to let the other person know they are not alone.” ~ Aleta B.
“Most people have been deprived of the human need for enough loving connection since birth. We very cleverly devised myriad strategies in attempts to get or compensate for that connection loss. Those coping strategies, however, got hardwired in to the brain and although they no longer serve us, we need awareness of their existence first in order to allow our clever brains to form new neural pathways. That’s my take on why good, wonderful adults may use these strategies unaware.” ~ Wendy A.
“I think with trauma survivors and one-upmanship one must take in consideration the control issues trauma survivors face. For most of us at one point in our lives we had to give up control to another person to survive. In dealing with the aftermath of the trauma having and maintaining control can take a big part of our time. If everything is nice and neat physically no one will notice how out of control I feel emotionally. it can almost be like a little safe bubble. Most of us are holding back tidal waves of raw emotion. But when we either hear or read of similar experiences, the bubble pops or the flood gates open and reality (which sucks in my opinion) sets in and we are wounded again. But this time we can ask for help and get it, we want the help, we want the attention, we want the support, we want the spotlight because we have ignored the situation/pain ourselves for too long. I think for the most of us it’s not intentional one-upmanship but more of a painful reaction to everything we have to hold back in order to get on with life.” ~ A.S.
The problem with this behavior? Inserting one’s own story without acknowledging others’ is invalidating beyond measure. Second, what is a little bit to you can (and has been) incapacitating for someone else. We each have our own thresholds for painful experiences. How do we have constructive conversation about lived experience then?
- Realize that every person that you encounter has experienced some kind of trauma.
- Realize that each person’s trauma is a unique wound and that while it may have been caused by a common thing, the experience of it very different.
- LISTEN to a person who is telling his or her story. Before sharing yours, validate the person’s experience. Before sharing yours, ask if the person minds if you share.
- Remember that we all wish to be heard at the soul level. In the words of Miles Franklin: “Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.”
There is enough for all of us, if we only take the time to see each others’ humanity.