Misery Poker

Humans love to compare, but when comparison turns into a competition of wagering your miseries, the game can never be won. Let the rounds begin!


Round 1: School 

From Barbie dolls to collegiate degrees to promotions in the workplace, people relish in comparing their assets and accomplishments with others. While this is a natural human practice, it can become detrimental when the intensity level of one’s complaint list translates to a measure of their work ethic and success. 

This game of comparing the miseries in one’s life to those of their peers has an official name—Misery Poker—which seems to be a direct product of American culture. Even within the media which capitalizes on highlighting tragedy or the drama of cancel culture, it is evident how our interactions are becoming increasingly defined by hypercriticism. 

Misery Poker makes students feel like they need to try harder just to get up to average or need to go through a lot more pain just to feel like everyone else.”

— Juliana Iruleggi

According to Rena Steiner, a licensed family and marriage counselor, people manifest their desire to be seen and heard by listing the negative aspects of their life. “It catches people’s attention; it allows one to feel power over another when one’s vying stories of misery,” Reiner said. “However, the ‘power’ effect of engaging in this way is short-lived.”

Paly students are no exception to the game, whether they are players of power or victim to feelings of subsequent powerlessness. Freshman Noah Boyarsky views Misery Poker as a means to compare people with one another. “Misery Poker came from a place of everyone really struggling and people turning it into something they can brag about,” Boyarsky said. “But [Misery Poker] has now turned into where people start structuring their behavior like what classes they take and how many hours they sleep in order to win the game.” 

Even after two students lament about their homework assignments in a comparative way, both can still walk away feeling lonely and empty. In the midst of trying to make other people sorry for them, students often end up putting more pressure on themselves after hearing about the responsibilities and miseries of their peers. 

Freshman Juliana Iruleggi found that Misery Poker adds a significant amount of pressure on students. “It makes students feel like they need to try harder just to get up to average or need to go through a lot more pain just to feel like everyone else,” Iruleggi said. 

The need to outcompete is not limited to the constraints of high school. Those who believe that success is measured by the content they can brag about often end up choosing to attend colleges and enter career paths that are more reputable. 

According to junior Lindsay Aldous, “The Paly culture developed by Misery Poker is focused on the work you are doing instead of the things you are learning.” Students thus take hard classes for the sake of the game and not for a true passion to pursue the subject. This continues on into creating a lifestyle where one’s ability to brag trumps all else. 

Round 2: Marriage 

Despite its elementary nature, people drag this comparison game out of childhood and into their adult lives and relationships where they use their evergrowing responsibilities to guilt one another. 

In her work with couples, Steiner has observed that Misery Poker often results from a lack of honest communication. When observing couples, she has seen Misery Poker present even shortly after the early “honeymoon” phase of the relationship. The romantic feelings that were once there dissipate as couples now focusing on their needs and expectations of the relationship. “There seems to be a lot of fear in the vulnerability. Instead, couples banter back and forth with their lists of how each has suffered in the relationship, trying to prove to the other who has had it worse,” Steiner said. “Underneath the banter, there is usually a need that is not being met, and oftentimes then not it is the person themselves who needs to meet that need not the other person.” 

[The negative aspects of life] seem so in your face,” Steiner said. “Yet with a softer gaze of intention, the beauty, the positives, the gifts of life come into view.”

— Rena Steiner

For a relationship to thrive, there must be verbal communications about the challenges a partner is dealing with in order to make the necessary changes needed to maintain the relationship. “It’s important to share the challenges one is experiencing, where one owns the experience and has the power to make the necessary choices and changes needed in the relationship,” Steiner said.

Additionally, when parents model these Misery Poker behaviors, their children naturally learn and follow them. Talking to elementary schoolers, Steiner has seen the ease at which young children are able to view themselves in a negative frame of mind. “My six, seven and eight-year-old clients will give me a long list of all the reasons they’re bad people,” Steiner said. “I listen with a very heavy heart, and think, ‘Where and how did this child develop this negative narrative of self at such a young age?”’ Steiner said. Oftentimes, these negative perceptions directly result from the environment at home and familial norms of self-deprecation. “When the home is saturated with negative interactions then the child will most definitely be affected and will see themselves and others through this negative lens,” Steiner said. 

The key to fostering a healthy relationship is having commitment in all regards, from being supportive to constructive. All members, whether in a romantic pairing or a family, must be responsible for their actions and reactions. In order to do so, individuals have to be vulnerable. For many, Misery Poker serves as a way to avoid such responsibility, allowing people to stray away from developing critical self-reflective and direct skills. “Using Misery Poker to avoid taking responsibility for one’s own actions, undermines the person themselves, their partner and the relationship,” Steiner said. “Cut to the chase, and with grace and integrity share what’s really going on and what is needed, i.e. ‘I feel hurt, unheard, disempowered, scared, insecure, unloved’” 

In our current society, focusing on the bad appears increasingly omnipresent. However, when individuals are transparent with their emotions, they are able to make the necessary changes in order to thrive and feel content. “[The negative aspects of life] seem so in your face,” Steiner said. “Yet with a softer gaze of intention, the beauty, the positives, the gifts of life come into view.”