27 May, 2019

Putting Pain in Perspective: Pain Olympics Revisited

I’ve been thinking about writing about the Pain Olympics again for a couple of years, after a particular encounter. In the meanwhile though, I thought I might copy the majority of a post I wrote back in 2012. I’ve made a few edits to update it, as it was written at a very particular time in my life. (If you’re interested, you can read it in full, and the comments, here).

There’s a lot said in our community about the Pain Olympics – that there shouldn’t be a judgement about who has the most pain, who has it worse. I’ve been hearing this for ten years (edit: by now, it has been 17 years). And I will admit that I’ve never been completely comfortable with it.

I don’t agree that there are no degrees of pain, that all pain is the same. It’s not. My stubbed toe is not as painful as your broken arm. Your broken heart is different from my hurt feelings. Speaking personally, my TGN is – most of the time – scarier now than my childlessness.

But that doesn’t mean we are not allowed to feel those feelings. Just because someone might be grieving or hurting worse than us, it doesn’t mean that our own pain is not legitimate, and that we’re not allowed to grieve. Anyone grieving, hurting, vulnerable and/or stressed deserves our sympathy. Acknowledging someone else’s pain does not diminish our own.

I am going to speak personally here though. Playing Pain Olympics helps me to put my own pain into perspective. Perhaps it is easier for me to do this now, because I’m no longer infertile (ie I am no longer trying to conceive), because I’m comfortable with my life, because I can look back and see my progress. My pain when I lost my first and second pregnancies, when I thought I was facing cancer, and when I learned I would never have children – this was real pain, and intense. I struggled to pull out of it. I remember being told I might have cancer. I couldn't process it, and focused only on the grief that it would mean I couldn't have children. That was the bigger pain for me at the time. My doctors and nurses couldn't quite understand it - but it was my pain, and it was legitimate.

Still, even then, I knew that at least (at the time) I had my health, I was financially secure, I had my brain. I knew that there were others worse off than me. And I think that perspective was important. It allowed me to pull myself out of the doldrums. It allowed me to move on.

So as our pain fades, I think it is only appropriate to put it in perspective. As new pains emerge, it is then easier to put them in perspective too. Perspective is important. But I’m talking about our own, personal perspectives. We do all stand and judge other people’s pain, even if we try not to. It is inevitable. Other people might look at me and say “you never had anything, you never lost anything, you don’t deserve to feel pain over your pregnancy losses, over the fact you can’t have children.” We all know that’s not true. I know what my infertility has meant to me in my life. They don’t. Someone else can’t put your pain in perspective for you! It implies they are not sympathetic, that our pain doesn’t matter to them, that it is trivial, and that we don’t deserve to grieve.

Equally, I can’t try to tell anyone that their pain is less or more than mine (even if I think it). I can however tell myself where my pain fits on the scale. (The scale? My scale, perhaps?) And I will. This doesn't mean I don't let myself grieve. I have, and I do. When it is necessary. But crucially, I also remind myself when I should be grateful too. If I didn’t do that, if I didn’t develop that perspective, I could drown in my own pain, and yes, my own self-pity. If I didn’t put my pain into perspective, I think I’d struggle to understand that I have a glass half full, not half empty. It is what helps me survive.

When I wrote the original post, I’d been through three of the worst weeks of my life, suffering intense physical pain and real fear. But it didn’t last, and I knew I was lucky. The –physical pain receded, and although it has returned, I know too that I am lucky that medication keeps it under control. This isn’t the case for others who suffer, and I feel for them. Then, as I do writing this today, I look out the window, at a beautiful autumn day, at the blue sky, at the setting sun on the trees, and listen to the birds serenading me from the trees above me. I can breathe in, and feel good. Because I know, that right this moment, I don’t have it so bad.

Pain Olympics. They put it all in perspective, and make everything easier to accept. In my view, they are a most important part of healing.


  1. Love this: "Acknowledging someone else’s pain does not diminish our own."

    And also, the idea of flipping Pain Olympics around to providing perspective and helping healing. It's also interesting to think on how where you are in life and with different crises can influence your point of view. I'm glad your pain is managed and you aren't facing fear in that arena any more.

  2. i really enjoyed this. i have felt like comparing pain doesn't work, we feel pain differently. Two people can stub their toes and the level of pain that they feel is different. I agree with you that although my pain may be less or greater than another, both pains are real and legitimate and should be recognized. Thank you for sharing.