There is an enormously popular game that folks play in American culture. You’ve probably played it at some point in your life without even realizing it. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the single most popular game out there. Not soccer, not football, not basketball…
It’s the “I’m More Broken than You” game.
Never heard of it? Well, tell me if these sound familiar…
“Wow, I’m so achy after practice yesterday…”
“That’s nothing, I worked out afterwards, I can barely pick up my phone!”
“Ugh, I went to bed so late last night; I’m exhausted…”
“That’s okay, I only got three hours of sleep trying to finish that report. Sucks.”
As you can see, the “I’m More Broken than You” game (hereafter referred to as IMBtY) is a strange sort of one-upmanship that focuses on comparing negative situations. The ‘winner’ is the one who’s the worst off. IMBtY can manifest in situations outside of bodily complaints. I’ve witnessed people playing IMBtY with who’s more overworked, who has a shittier past, who struggles more to fit in—I just recently caught myself playing IMBtY over who had more debt!
So what’s going on here? Isn’t this just general bonding over complaints, misery loves company sort of stuff?
I argue that IMBtY is actually a fairly harmful habit, for the following reasons:
- It encourages people to focus on the negative in their lives. Most of us have been heavily conditioned to avoid any behaviour that could seem like bragging. However, ‘bragging’ about how terrible something was slips under that radar.
- It invalidates people’s experiences. If you were stuck in the ER waiting room for an hour, and someone plays ‘being stuck in the waiting room for four hours with a screaming baby, chances are you’re going to tell yourself to hush up because clearly your situation wasn’t that bad. Bad is relative, and your experience is still valid.
- It can be used as a tool for shutting people out. If you’re not as broken as me, you can’t be in the club, or you’re somehow not really xyz. I’ve seen this in discussions about chronic illnesses, sexual orientation, gender, race—you name it.
- It can encourage people to desire or seek out negative experiences. If someone belongs to a group, or feels they do, the sensation that they ‘don’t have it bad enough to actually be xyz’ can lead them to seek out bad situations, doubt themselves, or even commit self-sabotage. If you must be this broken to ride, some people are going to try and get there.
- It can discourage people from seeking needed support/help. If some combination of the above two risks happen, that person is much less likely to seek the support/help they could legitimately benefit from, because of their impression that they ‘don’t have it bad enough’.
You’ll notice the strong connections to imposter syndrome and social comparison, and lesser ties to group dynamics and perfectionism.
These are serious ramifications for a speech habit so quickly taught by our culture. And it’s so easy to fall into, and hard to recognize as damaging in the first place.
If IMBtY is easy to fall into, it’s that much harder to climb out of. It’s a continual process—I’ve been working at it for over a year now, and still catch myself doing it sometimes.
If you want to get out of the game, here’s my two-cents:
Try to notice when you start playing IMBtY. Often times there’s a phrase that crops up that tends to signal your entry into the game. For me, it was “that’s okay”, as in, “that’s okay, I xyz other situation that can be seen as worse comparatively.” Once I made the connection and started cutting down on that phrase, it was both easier to notice when I was playing and easier to resist the impulse to play.
Let your friends know. Explain to your friends that you’re trying to break the IMBtY habit. Accountability can work wonders. If you’re comfortable with it, enlist their help to (kindly) point out when they notice you straying into IMBtY territory. (My partner is very good at spotting IMBtY language and has helped me become much more aware of it myself.)
Call yourself on it. Once you begin to recognize when you’re playing, understand that you won’t catch yourself 100% of the time. (That’s not how breaking habits work.) When you do notice a slip, don’t beat yourself up over it. (Easier said than done, I know.) Instead, acknowledge that you noticed the IMBtY territory and that you’re actively trying to lessen how often you go there.
With time and practice, we can knock IMBtY from its place as most commonly played game in America. And perhaps if we work really hard, we can replace it with hockey. Definitely hockey.