"Things Could Be Worse" - Does This Statement Actually Help?

16 September, 2020
"Don't worry, things could be worse!” This is a very common expression that we use when someone's going through a difficult situation. However, is there any benefit in underestimating exactly what people are going through?

Many of us have found ourselves in this situation. We’ve just lost a job, finished a relationship, suffered a disappointment and, just when we’re talking about these things with someone close to us, they come up with that old chestnut “Don’t worry, things could be worse”. We often use it because we don’t know what else to say, but is there any benefit in someone telling us this or thinking it?

Beyond whether it’s useful or not, there’s plenty of evidence of its use. It’s very common for us to compare our situations with those of others, and we use them as a reference. Sometimes, knowing that some people are going through more difficult things than you are can bring you some relief.

It’s as if your mind is desperately looking for something to cling to in order to say, “Well, taking all things into account, things aren’t as bad as they could be”.

It’s a curious tendency that most of us tend to employ, and it’s also been studied by the field of psychology. We know that it’s a type of adaptation strategy that we resort to frequently. Nevertheless, there are some nuances to this “lifesaver” that we should all keep in mind.

A woman in the rain.

“Things could be worse” – it could rain

You’re on your way home after work and your car breaks down. You call the tow truck and wait. In your despondency, your brain tries to find a way to console you. “Well, it could be worse, it could be raining!” And, strangely, this thought sort of helps.

Another example could be a visit to the doctor. In the appointment, they break the news to you that you have diabetes. Quite logically, you feel pretty scared by those words. However, the doctor smiles reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry, it could be a lot worse, there are many more serious diseases”.

In these two examples, you can imagine yourself in two very different situations. In the first one, the thought that the situation can’t get any worse brings you relief. However, the second example is a “trap” that we often fall into. What we do here is underestimate the seriousness of a situation while comparing it to another one.

The fact that a doctor tells you that there are people in more complicated and tougher situations than yours doesn’t really help. What this strategy actually achieves is to undervalue the seriousness of someone’s particular situation.

In addition to that, you’ll be in danger of making them feel guilty because they’ve found relief in the idea that others are worse off than them. We can conclude that it isn’t logical nor ethical to resort to these types of comments.

“Things could be worse”, the phrase that undermines people’s experiences

If there’s one thing that we, as humans, often get wrong it’s knowing how to support, accompany, and help other people. When you go through difficult times, you wouldn’t normally want those around you to end up with the same problem or to suffer the loss that you’ve experienced. All you want is some understanding and love.

However, many people make use of these unwise comments, telling people “Things could be worse”.

Let’s imagine you had a car accident and the only thing you suffered was some pain in your neck. If someone then tells you that things could’ve been so much worse, this could create more anguish in your mind about suffering worse consequences in the future. You might even be scared of taking the wheel again.

Let’s take another example. Imagine you’ve been fired from your job. You won’t be comforted by the thought that you could be suffering even worse difficulties. Why? Because all those comments do is detract from what you’re experiencing right now.

They just negate your emotions and the reality you’re facing by comparing it with something that doesn’t have anything to do with you and which can’t, and shouldn’t, produce any relief in you. You’re not going to feel better by knowing that others are worse off.

An anxious teen.

The danger of victimization

In a study conducted by Dr. Shelley Taylor and Joan Wood at the University of Texas, they drew some interesting conclusions regarding this topic. There’s something even more common than other people telling you that “things could be worse”. The most common thing is that you actually say it to yourself.

What they concluded from this research was that it doesn’t always help us to employ this type of strategy of psychological adaptation to difficulties. Moreover, if what you’re going through is serious, it can often make things worse.

To understand this a bit better, we’re going to give an example. Let’s imagine a teenager who has suffered bullying throughout high school.

This young man takes comfort in the thought that things could’ve been worse. For example, he was never physically assaulted. He finds solace in the fact that no one found out what was happening to him, neither his parents nor his teachers. However, this doesn’t create any real benefit. He thinks that he didn’t suffer the worst possible outcome but the reality of the situation is a different one.

Undermining suffering

By using this unhelpful strategy, what he’s actually doing is undermining just what he’s gone through. He doesn’t face, or try to deal with, his suffering because he has underestimated it. He’s applied a defense mechanism to try to help himself, but all he’s done is to avoid the trauma. As you can see, he’s actually made the situation worse and hasn’t resolved it in the slightest.

Thus, by way of a conclusion, we can say that, in a few specific circumstances, the comment “things could be worse” may well be truly useful. However, let’s not ignore or trivialize people’s suffering, however insignificant it may seem to you.

It’s important to recognize and respect every situation that people are going through. The truth of the matter is that, if you don’t understand that the situation the other person is experiencing can create real suffering and anguish in them, it’ll be very difficult for you to help them.

  • Taylor Shelley, Wood Joan (2002) It Could Be Worse: Selective Evaluation as a Response to Victimization. Journal os social issues. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1983.tb00139.x