One-upmanship and Trauma

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about one-upmanship, especially related to trauma. It is annoying and offensive enough when not surrounding trauma (e.g., “I got a B+ on the test!” “Oh, really? I got an A!”). However, it can be demeaning, isolating, and silencing to have your thoughts, feelings, and experiences about a traumatizing situation or event diminished or invalidated by someone else claiming to have had an even more traumatizing experience. I have had it happen to me, and it feels incredibly crappy.

It’s important to understand that traumatization is subjective and differs among individuals. One person can go through something and be scarred by it, whereas most people would simply brush it off. An example of this could be suffering humiliation at work or a break-up. Another person can go through something generally considered traumatic, such as war, famine, or severe abuse, but not experience debilitating effects afterward.

The way a person responds to any negative event in their life is largely based on the risk factors and protective factors present. For example, a person who doesn’t have a strong social support system, is impoverished, has not learned healthy ways of coping with stress, and/or has a genetic pre-disposition to mental illness is statistically less likely to process a trauma well. On the contrary, a person who has strong family and friend ties, is financially stable, has learned healthful ways of dealing with stress, and does not suffer from mental illness is more likely to take the trauma in stride.

Not only have I experienced being one-upped, but I I have found myself unintentionally committing the act. I can say my motivations are usually pure, in that I am not trying to stroke my own ego or “win” a discussion or, as I’ve heard it put before, win the “Oppression Olympics”. Instead, I’m motivated to relate to the other person, show them they’re not alone, normalize their feelings, and demonstrate that I can empathize with them. And while some of the time it might work, it also has the potential to cause more pain, grief, and feelings of separation. Impact over intent.

Have you experienced being one-upped by somebody, especially when you were relating a terrible time in your life, one that deeply affected and maybe even changed you? Only to have them start talking about themselves and their own situation in a bid to convince you that you didn’t actually have it “that bad”? Or maybe after reading this you realize it’s something you’re guilty of, yourself, and that you need to be more careful to honor others’ perceptions of their own experiences? I’d love to hear your story, if so!