Making comparisons is part of human nature. Some people look up for hope. Some people look down for relief. But whatever you do when making comparisons about chronic illness – don’t forget about the the human behind it all, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Snita Ahir-Knight.

Imagine you’ve recently been diagnosed with a chronic condition – let’s say type 1 diabetes. To help you accept the diagnosis you search the internet.

You discover how many other people have diabetes and are living fulfilling lives. You find blogs written by those who have the endurance to run ultramarathons, such as Roger Hanney.

You learn that some people talk about having diabetes so positively – like the actor James Norton, who describes type 1 diabetes as a “mini superpower”. And that some, like UK prime minister Theresa May, have the physical and mental stamina to run a country and endeavour to enact Brexit.

Political views aside, these people inspire and motivate you. You compare having the disease with their experience of it. You realise you may lead a fulfilling life too. You think you too may even gain diabetic superpowers.

But at times managing your disease depresses you, so you seek comfort and advice from others. They tell you that at least you don’t have a worse disease, which they may view as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or a mood disorder.

You realise by comparing yourself with others that there are people less fortunate than you and this gives you a sense of relief and makes you feel grateful. So you can go back to thinking you too may gain diabetic superpowers.

By comparing yourself with others you are engaged in the social comparison process. This is a theory outlined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. He said there is a human drive to define the self by comparing ourselves with others. The field of psychology continues to consider this theory. Making comparisons is human nature.

When you compare yourself with those you think are doing better than you then you are making upward comparisons. When you compare yourself with those you think are less fortunate than you then you are making downward comparisons. There are also lateral comparisons – comparing yourself with those similar to you.

But from my experience of type 1 diabetes I have worries with disease comparisons.

Here are my top two worst comparisons: 

1. “At least you don’t have diabetes.”

With this downward disease comparison, I have become the unfortunate other. The unfortunate other is at risk of being looked down on, pitied and painted a miserable and hopeless picture. The downward disease comparison may make the person doing the comparing feel better, but comes with a significant cost to the other.

2. “Diabetes is worse than [insert another disease here].”

With this downward comparison, a general judgement is being made about me rather than considering me as an individual – I am forgotten. This is because for some people diabetes is worse than [the inserted disease] – such as risking cancer or having HIV – but in other cases diabetes may be better. It depends on what the person values. For example, if you value a life that involves eating chocolate cake without constant criticism and blame then having diabetes is worse than HIV. However, if you value a life without being ostracised and blamed then having HIV is worse than diabetes.

So I think that, although downward comparisons are natural, there is a real risk of damage.

But wait – I may be able to engage in upward comparisons that make me feel better about myself.

I may, yes.

But I may struggle with upward comparisons too. The ones too high to reach – like thinking so positively about having diabetes. What if I think, yes, having diabetes has brought me benefits, but the cost to me means I struggle to see the diabetic superhero in me – does that mean I am a diabetic failure?

So, while it may be human nature to engage in them, I think we should stop these types of comparisons. Instead, see yourself and others as individuals. Individuals with your own experiences, values and desires. Look to others not to view yourself in relative terms but to learn from them to grow.

And don’t look down on people so they become the unfortunate other. Instead, bring out your empathic side – the one Norton talks about. Not as a superhuman, but as a human.

Because, even though we are all individuals with our own experiences, we still all share the connection of living through difficult circumstances.

Dr Snita Ahir-Knight has a PhD in philosophy from Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington and is a social worker and child and adolescent therapist.

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