"Now if you haven't been through it yourself, you may not be aware that coming out is something of a competitive sport amongst gay people. It's like a Top Trumps of Who's Had the Worst Time. "Oh, you got shot in the head? You win!"
— Susan Calman, Susan Calman is Convicted
Every now and then, life sucks. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning can seem a feat of Herculean strength, and dragging yourself into school or work is all but impossible. Often, the one thing that can sustain us as we limp into the office/classroom after a relationship break up, family row or disastrous guinea pig incident is the reassurance that our friends will lend an ear to sympathise in our hour of need...
Er, we hope. As long as someone else isn't entitled to more angst than we.
In many stories - and often in real life too - there's only so much sympathy to go around. So if you arrive to your workplace bemoaning the frankly humiliating first meeting with your in-laws, or the parking ticket you got as a result of an over-talkative cashier and a downright malevolent traffic warden, better take a note of the gripes of your co-workers before you launch into that pent-up tirade. Chances are that if someone has an angst that "trumps" yours, your worries - no matter how valid - become instantly trivial. And the rest of the episode will probably be devoted to you "getting over" yourself in order to be there for your pal. Even you yourself will eventually give a monologue on the importance of not dwelling on your worries because there are people worse off than yourself, and you should count your blessings.
There is a certain validity to this way of thinking; it's usually better to be positive after all. However, human nature being what it is, we're allowed to feel sad or grumpy from time to time without being criminalized for it. Occasionally, a show or book will acknowledge this and subvert this trope, revealing that the character who was being told off for being such a drama queen by friends with "bigger issues" is actually in pretty serious trouble.
On the other extreme, this can be used for comedy...such as a character loudly complaining about their lives while someone in the background is chased by enraged rhinos. In such cases, it's clear that the viewer is supposed to see their worries as trivial, and usually we will - unless Fridge Logic kicks in.
Sometimes this is a pretty logical trope - a parking ticket isn't nice, but a bereavement is on a totally different level of grief altogether. At other times, though, the viewer might note that the character with the "lesser" gripe has every right to be downhearted - for example, a character whose illness is serious, but not as serious as someone else's - and may accuse the supporting cast of having No Sympathy when they fail to acknowledge this. Falsely setting up problems in competition seems to imply that only the biggest problem can be dealt with, whatever the feasibility issues or nature of the lesser one.
May show up on internet debates, especially as Flame War fuel. If this happens on your message board, it might be a good idea not to post until it's all over - your will to live will be drained one way or another, either in sympathy or in despair at so much angsting.
Also sometimes known as Misery Dicks (i.e., my misery dick is bigger than yours) and Woe-Offs — as well as Oppression Olympics, when it occurs in debates concerning social justice issues.
Compare When I Was Your Age.
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Anime and Manga
In Gravitation, Shuichi is constantly chided for his whining - even when his woes involve his boyfriend vanishing without a word, Shuichi getting kicked out of their shared home every time Yuki has a temper tantrum, and Tohma's various unpleasant schemes to "protect" Yuki at Shuichi's expense. Everyone, down to best friend Hiro, points out how much tougher Yuki's life has been, and Shuichi himself trivializes all of his angst, even the fact that he was gang raped.
In Elfen Lied, Yuka constantly angsts and treats Kouta badly because Kouta is rejecting her sexual advances and forgot a promise - that he made to her ten years ago, in extremely promise-inducing circumstances, barely half an hour before he saw his father and sister brutally ripped to shreds by someone he saw as his closest friend. This in a house that has taken in girls that have, in no particular order: lost her arms, legs and was abandoned by her family and foster father figure; got beaten so hard by her own father that she became incontinent and has to wear diapers just because she wanted to become a singer like her mother, who committed suicide when she was a child; sexually abused by her stepfather and is a runaway; and Lucy, who is just reallymessed up.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei takes this across the line several times, as is its habit. Nami tried to elicit sympathy from her classmates by coming in with a bandaged arm - then Abiru came in with bandages around half her head, her arm in a sling, and her leg in a cast. Then Nami tried to complain about being so poor she had to live in a small apartment and share a room with her parents - then in came Maria, an illegal immigrant who lives with 20 others in a single room, carrying a big bag of garbage and waxing lyrical about Japan's incredible bounty and how much better it was than her home country, where people knowingly eat poisonous mushrooms because there's nothing else. Then Nami tries to get attention by threatening to jump out a window -at which point Nozomu flies down from the roof in a noose and crashes into the wall (he gets better).
In Weiss Kreuz, after Tomoe Sakura has one of her kidneys stolen by a Mad Scientist and becomes the subject of a great deal of prying media attention, she laments what's happened to her and that the surgery has left her unable to run track like she could before. Aya, whose little sister and only living family has been in a coma for two years and shows no signs of ever waking, delivers a verbal slap to Sakura in which he roughly points out to her that at least she's still alive and conscious and capable of moving under her own power.
The official rules for picking out who starts a game of Gloom is to have a game of Misery Poker covering the current day. Makes for amusing contrievances if played the first thing in the morning, and for the bizarre situation where your pals might hold "grudges" against you for having such a miserable life.
This post from the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.fandom sums up the trope. Note: everything written about the Huntress' origin story here actually happened in the comic.
"So, what's your origin story, Huntress?"
"My entire family was gunned down before my very eyes."
"Big deal. Join the club."
"But it turns out they weren't my real family."
"Well, my mother was really my mother, but I was actually illegitimate."
"So was your real father?"
"The guy who arranged for the hit on my family."
"Well, at least you weren't killed by your own father."
"No, but I was supposed to be."
"The hitman was supposed to kill me and her husband, but spare my mother so she could marry my real father and they could start a family."
"So what happened?"
"The hitman got his Helenas confused."
(There is a stunned silence for a moment. Then the Punisher, the Executioner, and several other vigilante heroes look at one another for a moment before all throwing their money on the table in front of the Huntress.)
"Okay, you win."
"You've got me beat."
"And I thought my origin story sucked."
Batgirls Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown compare sucky childhoods:
Steph: Nobody ever talks about your family, what was your dad like?
Cass: Assassin. David Cain.
Steph: Are you serious?
Steph: '[laughs]'' You've been listening to me whine about having the Cluemaster for a dad, when your dad's like the scariest killer on the planet?
Steph: When my dad was mad at me he'd lock me in the closet - what did yours do?
Cass: Shot me.
Steph: Oh man, I can't beat you at anything.
Very nicely averted in Fantastic Four. After a particularly brutal encounter with Dr. Doom, Reed is left with a painful burn scar covering half his face. After a short while living with it, and acting increasingly irrationally, Ben calls him out on his behavior. During the speech, he tells him that he's noticed that even though he's clearly bothered by it, Reed hasn't complained about the scar once since getting it, at least not in front of Ben. While he has it much worse, as a giant rock-monster, Ben was quick to acknowledge his friend was suffering.
In All Fall Down, the Pantheon get together for a game and this is the result. Phylum wins.
In the Fantastic Four movie, The Thing is sitting next to a suicidal person and tells him, "You think you've got problems? Take a good look, pal."
In Notting Hill there's a scene where the main characters intentionally engage in a game of Misery Poker with a concrete reward: the last brownie.
A large part of The Breakfast Club consists of the five students declaring what's shitty about their lives, particularly their relationships with their parents.
Lampshaded in the Sister Hood Of The Traveling Pants: Lena reflects on how she feels awful falling in love with a guy who's family hates hers. She also mentions how two of her friends, who've gone through divorce and a death of one's mother, are so happy, while she's so miserable over this (which she sees as trivial in comparison). This manages to depress her more. However, the two friends have other problems which are depressing them.
In Forty Two, Pee Wee Reese asks to be excused from an upcoming baseball game after he receives a threatening letter for associating with Jackie Robinson. In response, Mr. Rickey opens a filing cabinet and produces three bulging folders full of death threats Robinson received.
One of the main problems Sandry has in the Circle of Magic series is getting people to see her as a person, not a noble - the assumption being that her status makes her immune to the woes of the common people. Even her adopted siblings initially regard her with an attitude of "what do you know about suffering? You're rich!" Her upbeat and friendly attitude only serves to aggravate this. However, when she reveals that her parents died in a smallpox epidemic, then she was trapped in a hidden room in pitch darkness while an angry mob killed her last remaining caretaker, people tend to be more sympathetic. It's a hell of a way to make friends, but it works.
In Flour Babies by Anne Fine, the protagonist is told at the end of the story that hundreds of children go through the same trauma and worse that he went through...and none of them made as much fuss about it as he did. Possibly a Lampshade Hanging - the author makes it clear that the teacher's being an unsympathetic Jerkass.
Referenced and then defied in the fourth book of Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is An Alien book series: When Peter hears Susan say "Boy, I miss my family" (as they're traveling with aliens and can't see their families, and she can only have occasional phone calls with them) he thinks "At least you have family to miss" (due to him thinking that his father couldn't care less about his disappearance) but keeps silent because he doesn't want to get in a game of "Who's the most miserable".
In the third book of the Inheritance Cycle, Eragon and Roran compare bruises, complete with buckets of incestuous Ho Yay, mocking each other's for not looking painful enough. Eragon appears to win by removing his trousers to show Roran the massive groinal bruising from bareback dragon-riding, but Roran is able to top that by revealing that an Elite Mook more-or-less tore off his arm.
Toward the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, Syme tries to instigate this with God (or at any rate, the novel's Christ-figure). He loses, badly.
Syme: ...have you ever suffered?
Sunday:Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?
Live Action TV
JD of Scrubs is the poster child of this trope. The catalogue of disasters that befall him are listed under No Sympathy. In the same episode, Dr. Cox objects to being asked for help in dragging J.D. out of his misery, and when Turk, Carla and Elliot point out that J.D. rescued him from severe depression, he justifies himself with "I accidentally killed three patients...he passes out when he poops!"
A rather better handled example also came up in the episode that introduced Michael J. Fox's character Dr. Casey - sure, Dr. Cox may not be the best doctor, Turk may never be the best surgeon, and JD may need a bit more mentoring than most people, but Dr. Casey has severe OCD, and he deals with it gracefully.
This trope was a big part of choosing the winner on Queen for a Day; the contestant would get on the TV (originally radio) show and talk about how miserable their life was.
The "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch from At Last the 1948 Show, popularized by Monty Python.
One of The Daily Show's essential pieces is the "Bootstrap Story" segment mocking the candidates' milking of their humble origins at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (the one at which Barack Obama upped the stakes forever by relating that his father was once a goatherd). Stephen Colbert, in turn, tells Jon how hard his father worked mining turds in the Appalachians and how grateful he was not to have to lick goats' balls like his father used to back in the old country.
Jon: ...How is that a job? Stephen: You have to understand, Jon, in the old country the most important thing was to keep the goats happy. Now, as it turns out, the easiest way to do that... [makes a helpful illustrative gesture] ...was to work the balls. Jon: You know, I had never realized that about your family. Stephen: It's true, Jon. It's all true. [speaking to the camera] That's why I believe in the promise of America — that I, the son of a turd miner, the grandson of a goat-ball licker, could one day leave those worthless hicks behind while still using their story to enhance my own credibility!
Saturday Night Live in the 1980s had a recurring skit about two buddies (Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest) topping each other in claiming to have suffered absurd, painful injuries, many of which were self-inflicted.
Done in an episode of Monk after the titular character gets hit in the eyes by acid and goes blind.
Monk: I'm blind.
Homeless Guy: I'm homeless.
Monk: My wife is dead.
Homeless Guy: So's mine.
Monk: Car bomb?
The Big Bang Theory featured a scene in which Penny expresses disbelief that Leonard, Howard, and Raj haven't gone fishing with their fathers before. Leonard and Raj both express misery that their fathers were always busy with their scientific jobs, and then Howard mentions that his "father son bonding" was spent waiting for his dad to come home. Leonard even says, "Okay, Howard wins."
And that's not the only time Howard has pulled the "My dad left" card to trump someone else's complaints.
Celeste: I used to live in a storm drain. Rain washed my doll heads away.
Earl: That sounds horrible. I once lived in my car for two months.
Celeste: Did you ever have to move because a pack of stray dogs kicked you out of your house?
Earl: ...Let's not make this a contest.
ER had Dr. Mark Greene get in a good one on his last day of work, when a nasty old lady from the pilot returned:
Mrs. Raskin: How much longer do I have to sit here?!
Mark: Mrs. Raskin. It's been a long time.
Mrs. Raskin: Well the service isn't what it used to be.
Mark: What's the trouble?
Mrs. Raskin: I have this hangnail and it is very painful!
Mark: I have brain tumor, and it's inoperable.
Mrs. Raskin: What?
Mark: I win.
"It Sucks To Be Me" from Avenue Q as well as serving as an introduction to most of the cast also has them trying to outdo each other regarding whose life sucks the most. In the end they all agree Gary Coleman outsucks them all.
Happens often in For Better or for Worse, especially to April - every time she griped about a not-so-good situation, someone would happen by who was in far worse shape.
In the Dilbert book, Build A Better Life By Stealing Office Supplies, Dogbert advises office drones that, if you run late, make sure your excuse trumps the one before you; otherwise, you're the weak link and ripe for discipline.
Ted: Sorry I was late. There was an accident and traffic was backed up for miles.
Wally:I was the accident. I hit some kind of large animal.
Dilbert: Somebody ran over my mother.
This also tends to be Topper's standard MO: wait til someone complains and then top their complaint. With the twist that he'll also do this with anything positive they say.
Invoked in Richard Jeni's Card Table Dating routine - on a first date, the two people write down their problems on cards and then take turns playing one card at a time and showing their issues.
Friendly Hostility: Collin trumped Nadine's record of "time not spoken to parents," but was beaten by Leslie Rudd in the "who had the most negligent/abusive" parents stakes. In the last few months of the comic, some Fox vs. Collin Misery Poker went on, particularly amongst the fandom, with Fox's past injuries to Collin being weighed against Collin's increasingly passive-aggressive, taciturn behaviour.
The point of http://first-world-problems.com/ — the joke being that only "first world problems", i.e. minor annoyances of priviledged citizens of wealthy countries/cities are allowed in contrast to "big problems" such as bone-dry poverty, universal food shortage, or being caught in a raging civil war.
A meme going around Tumblr takes a form similar to the Diesel Sweeties comic above, but much more extended; starting with Batman's dead parents, going through Superman's dead planet, and making a final stop at Homestuck's TWO dead universes.
In one Naruto fan comic, Sasuke complains about losing his parents, prompting Lee to bring up the time he was almost permanently crippled and forced into retirement, Neji to bring up his low status in his clan and Gaara to bring up his social isolation and multiple attempts on his life. Sasuke, Lee and Neji conclude Gaara is worst off.
Can be a problem for people with depression or other mood or social disorders, if the people around them are young or don't understand the nature of the problem. A seeming disparity between their emotional state and whatever is going on immediately around them can lead to a lot of frustration for others and alienation for the sufferer. Furthermore, if the people a depressed person goes turn their attempts for support or sympathy into joking games of Misery Poker, that person's depressed mind can easily make the conclusion that they're having it so well that they aren't "allowed" to feel bad. And that, dear children, is one destructive thought.
Some people love Misery Poker so much that they'll do it even when someone obviously isn't fishing for sympathy. For instance, mention that you didn't get much rest last night when someone asks why your eyes are bloodshot, and suddenly everyone in the vicinity will start trying to one-up each other with hyperbole-laden tales of how little sleep they're running on.