Oneupmanship: you think YOU have pain?

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by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

Have you ever been in the middle of telling somebody something important to you, only to be interrupted because what you’ve just said has reminded them of their own (far more fascinating!) story that clearly outshines yours? It’s a scene-stealing moment of oneupmanship. Or as author Stephen Covey once lamented:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Oneupmanship is perhaps most memorably represented in the iconic Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen skit (pictured above) in which the lads sit around and argue about which one of them had endured the worst poverty in childhood. “A house? You were lucky to live in a house! We lived in one room, all 26 of us!”

Oneupmanship compels us to do or say something in order to prove ​that we’re ​better/smarter/cooler/more interesting than others (as displayed in that unfortunate 2013 trend of sporting Google Glass on your face in public). 

But sometimes, oneupmanship (as in the Monty Python skit) looks like a competition to see who has it worse, not better – a kind of onedownmanship, if you will.

“You think YOU have pain? Let me tell you about MY pain…”

Or as one of my blog readers wrote, it’s like interjecting with the phrase “That’s almost as bad as. . .”  What does that mean?

 “Haven’t you ever noticed how people always say they’ve had worse things happen to them than you have?”

The most insufferable type of oneupmanship (or onedownmanship) can affect patients when discussing their medical conditions.  Segen’s New Medical Dictionary even defines it as oneupmanship syndrome (and isn’t every aberration now a “syndrome”?), describing it like this:

“A term that refers to the habit of some patients of exaggerating the symptoms of their particular condition – e.g., worse symptoms, greater pain, a longer recuperation than others with the same condition – in order to evoke greater sympathy in spectators.”

This resembles the concept (invented by me, I believe) that nevertheless does seem remarkably accurate in describing the unspoken superiority implied by the Seven Levels in the Hierarchy of Heart Disease.  As I wrote:
 “When it comes to coronary artery bypass graft surgery on our unofficial Hierarchy, more is better. Triple bypass tops double, quintuple beats quadruple. You get the picture.”
In some online patient support communities, it can actually feel like friendly fire. This term originated within the military in describing an attack by one’s own side, especially when it harms one of your own. For patients, friendly fire can come from the very people you’d least expect to attack: other patients.

Thus, those who are arguably most able to understand what it’s actually like to live with a serious illness often feel surprisingly free to minimize, interrupt, dismiss or insult others whom they judge to be not quite as bad off.

I first learned of the term friendly fire being applied to those living with chronic illness on the site Hitting The Wall, whose editor Kelli lives with a number of debilitating medical conditions. She made this observation about what can sometimes happen when patients get together:

“Sadly, in many situations instead of getting support, we end up hearing stories about fellow warriors’ woes at times when we are trying to reach out. This leaves the person who shares and needs support feeling unheard.

“When we vent, we need to feel heard and validated. We do not need to feel like someone thinks our story is unimportant and feels their situation is more important than ours.

“They hijack our vent, so to speak. We are all fighting a battle. We must be kind and let each person have the floor, allowing them to feel heard.”

There’s an implied sense of separation here within such a hijacker that disturbs me – some kind of insistent inner voice that snaps: I suffer far worse than you do! Attention must be paid! You are not anything like me!

I think Kelli brings up an important reminder: that empathetic conversation is not merely waiting for the other person to take a breath so you can interrup


How to tell if you’ve ever engaged in friendly fire when somebody is speaking to you:

If. . . 

  • you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about their _______ (insert diagnosis/symptoms/medical procedures here) in order to interject your own far more fascinating story about those subjects
  • if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to tell them the far more fascinating story of somebody you used to know/read about in the tabloids/dated your cousin’s neighbour’s son back in high school
  • if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to attempt to convince them to try the all-natural homeopathic organic vegan herbal supplement miracle cure you just learned about from Dr. Oz (you know, the treatments that our doctors don’t want us to know about)
  • if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to attempt to convince them to try the above cures because you are personally engaged in making money from selling them (which is, by the way, simply too hideously tacky for words so you must cease doing this immediately)
  • if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to tell them that clearly her physician is ________ (insert the appropriate slur: an idiot/uninformed/in bed with Big Pharma/lazy/out to get her)
  • if you have a tendency to keep interrupting others no matter what they’re talking about. Please shut up and listen, for God’s sake…


Q:  What prompts people to engage in oneupmanship when others start sharing their personal health stories?


NOTE FROM CAROLYN I wrote more about oneupmanship – or onedownmanship! – in Chapter 7 of my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017). You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

“Catastrophizing” – why we feel sicker than we actually are

Are you a victim or a survivor?

When a serious diagnosis makes you feel mad as hell

Get over yourself: how to stop boring others with your heart attack story

Listen up, ladies: 16 things I’ve been meaning to tell you


14 thoughts on “Oneupmanship: you think YOU have pain?

  1. A friend, who is into every kind of natural practices, and I having a ‘conversation’ this past week:

    She: You seem more ‘up’ today

    Me: Yes! I can walk without as much pain as I had before. I had a shot of cortisone in my hip in the x-ray department…

    She: Cortisone? That’s not good for you. It’s THE worse thing you can take. Have you seen a naturopath?

    Me(feeling attacked): I had it directly in the joint and it’s helping me with walking…

    She: A naturopath will help you decide the supplements you should take. Stay away from cortisone! You need a good naturopath to help you decide which vitamins to take.

    Me: I have a mechanical difficulty and with my heart disease it’s important to be mobile. The radiologist said…

    She: Do you take vitamins? A good naturopath will help you decide what the best ones are for your condition. I’m looking it up on line and will show you how bad cortisone is for you.

    Me: The family doc, sports medicine doc, and radiologist say I can have the procedure every 6 months. It’s really important for me to be able to exercise, and…

    She: A good naturopath is what you need.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my! This ‘conversation’ would be hilarious…

      1. …if it actually WERE an actual conversation instead of an attempt to completely convince you of your wrong-headedness, and
      2. …if some version of this didn’t happen so often to so many of us!

      And this isn’t about whether or not naturopaths are helpful (many patients do indeed find them helpful!) but more about making others “wrong” for their opinions, and also how health care decisions that work for ME are not necessarily the ones that YOU would choose, and vice versa. That is okay.

      But there’s a certain amount of genuine respect for others required to adopt this worldview! Thanks Barbara for telling us about this ‘conversation’! Very educational… 😉


  2. Good post (as usual!!!)

    It made me reflect: My personal and professional experience is that people who are “one-uppers” are longing to be heard. They often feel alone, isolated, marginalized, unheard etc.

    When I find myself “practicing one-upmanship” it’s almost always when I am wanting to connect and feel alone. I think on some level everyone yearns to be heard and that yearning can break through with behaviors that are off-putting at the least and rude at the most.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Judy-Judith! So interesting: I read both your comment and Denise’s comment (below) at the same time, each one echoing that “longing to be heard, looking for an audience” theme. You are both brilliant, clearly!

      The ironic reality, of course, is that when we practice oneupmanship due to that inner yearning to be listened, we can get the very results we DON’T want to get (people being annoyed and not wanting to listen!)


  3. Great post, Carolyn! Those skilled at oneupmanship seem to be looking for an audience…even if they have to steal one.

    The oneuppers I’ve known are poor listeners and not terribly empathetic (though empathy is certainly challenging when you feel lousy). Ultimately, it’s a self defeating behavior and pretty alienating… no one likes listening ad nauseam to someone so self absorbed.

    To me, I just turn it into another learning opportunity. Some people show me what to do, while others show me what NOT to do. Both are valuable lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such good points, Denise! Although I must say I often wonder if I haven’t already had quite enough “learning opportunities”, thank you very much! 😉 But you are so right: there’s nothing like encountering behaviour that is so offputting it immediately teaches us a valuable lesson (i.e. “Don’t EVER be like that!”)


  4. Fantastic article, especially since I deal regularly with people who’ve mastered one-upmanship and have never seen an explanation like yours.

    You understand how disappointing and tedious it is to try to share anything with them. On the flip side, they’ve shown me the importance of restraint. A new doctor really affirmed this the other day. “You’re not what I expected,” he said to me. “On paper you’re a train-wreck, but you’re doing very well.”

    Thanks for the great information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate your perspective here, Lauren. And you raise such an important point: it IS indeed tedious to share anything meaningful with such “one-uppers” – which is why we need to pick and choose carefully what to say and who to say it to, as I wrote about here.


  5. Reblogged this on Journey of a Tired Heart and commented:

    I wholeheartedly agree! My own practice is to listen, or read where social media is concerned, and offer validation. I’ll talk about my own situation if asked for specifics, or when I am “venting”. This one-upmanship has long been a pet peeve and will typically cause me to feel less empathy for the interrupter and more contempt.

    This post on the Heart Sisters blog is excellent, as is usual.
    Thank you Carolyn!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have encountered this a lot. In fact, we have a neighbour a bit like it. We call her elephant woman. If you have the elephant, she has the box it came in. Though to be fair, I think we have all done it at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sara, I laughed out loud at that elephant box response! Honestly, it’s just like Monty Python…. And you’re so right – I recognize it because on some level, I’ve said it – often because I suffered from healthy privilege at the time and was clueless about what it’s like to be in the other person’s hospital booties…

      Liked by 1 person

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