Q: Dr. Hurd, I sometimes fight feeling low by telling myself, “It could be worse.” Then I proceed to name examples of how it could be worse. Is this healthy — or am I putting neurotic guilt on myself?
A: It all depends on the context in which you say it. If you say it as a way to put yourself down, then of course it’s unhealthy.
Example: “It could be worse. I could be starving in Africa. How selfish of me to feel low about my relationship while they’re starving in Africa!”
It’s also unhealthy if you use it as a rationalization to excuse yourself from responsibility for your actions.
Example: “So I failed out of school. So what? It could be worse. I could be homeless.”
The healthy context for thinking this way is trying to give yourself perspective; to see the big picture completely and accurately; to make yourself more in touch with reality and, as a consequence, to feel better.
Example: “It could be worse. The fact that some people with greater problems manage to get by should help me feel better that I can move past this problem. There’s no cause for feeling depressed — at least not for long. I have to start planning a strategy for getting past this problem.”
Generally, people who are the most psychologically healthy are the ones who know how to bounce back quickly from stress and problems. It’s not stress itself which makes people more vulnerable to mental problems; it’s the way they manage (or mismanage) it.
Telling yourself that it could be worse — so long as it’s in the right context — is one way to bounce back from your problems and be someone who ultimately succeeds at life.
Don’t ever let the fact that it could be worse serve as a reason to inappropriately condemn yourself or excuse yourself. You didn’t cause the starvation in Africa, so don’t put yourself down for having the “more trivial” problems you happen to have. At the same time, the fact that there are people starving in Africa is no reason to lower your standards to nothing more than putting food on the table. If you have the opportunity to pursue greater values than only filling your stomach, you owe it to yourself to aim higher.