According to Wikipedia the definition of the term compare and despair is “to distress oneself by comparing one’s own situation with others who are more successful” however I believe it’s more far reaching than that. When you compare and despair you can be judging yourself, your situation, your choices or your worth as a woman, mother, employee, friend, spouse, etc.
The tendency to compare yourself to others and then despair about the comparison can come in the form of believing you aren’t as (fill in the blank) as someone else like when you look at a high school friend’s Facebook page and feel horrible because their house is so much nicer. It can also come in the form of comparing your past to your present and wishing you could go back in time like when you leave your job and start regretting the decision because the new job is more challenging than the last.
On the flip side, sometimes you may compare yourself or your situation in order to feel better like when you hear about someone struggling with their child’s grades and you silently think “At least my kid isn’t getting grades as bad as hers”. You may believe there’s no harm in comparison when it gives you a fleeting sense of validation but it is still part of the same problem.
Both sides of the comparison coin are an issue because you are still criticizing yourself and looking for relief in the form of more comparisons. You start by comparing yourself or your situation and feeling bad which then leads you to compare yourself or your situation to feel better.
It’s a merry go round of thinking that things outside of you make you feel bad and then looking for more things outside of you to feel better. You may think all you need to do is avoid things like social media but unless you live in a yurt in Alaska with no TV or internet access, you are going to come across people and situations in your daily life that are ripe for the compare and despair cycle.
This week I’m going to discuss why you compare and despair, why it’s a problem and how you can learn to stop.
Why you compare and despair
Before you beat yourself up for the tendency to compare and despair, just know that this is normal. Your brain has been hard wired to compare and starts putting it into action at a surprisingly young age.
In order to survive, the human brain has a tribe mentality. Your primitive brain looks for ways to understand your relationship to the rest of the tribe and how you fit in. Remember that your primitive brain equates rejection with death so not being accepted or valuable is threatening.
Since survival of the fittest is the evolutionary path humans have taken, your brain’s motivation for survival has been to measure you against others, build connections that keep you safe and be on the lookout for any threats. You’re not just looking for differences in people and situations you are also wired to see if those differences are better or worse.
There have been some interesting studies of Olympic medal winners to compare the happiness level of each winner. You would think that the Gold winner would be the happiest, the Silver winner the second happiest and the Bronze winner would be the least happy. But that’s not what they discovered.
Because of the tendency to compare and despair, the Silver winner was looking at the one person, the Gold winner, to compare themselves to and thinking “I was so close!” creating the feeling of unworthiness. However the Bronze winner was looking at ALL the people they needed to beat to be on the podium and thinking “This is amazing!” and feeling happier than the Silver winner.
Your brain is constantly looking to see who you may be in competition with and determining who is “winning”. This means you believe you need to accumulate validation and gold stars in order to feel good about yourself.
When you add your brain’s natural tendency to compare as well as being taught at an early age that competition is good, it’s no wonder you compare and despair. You’re constantly scanning to see if you measure up and look for those measurements to determine if you feel better or worse about yourself.
Why it’s a problem
While I was doing research on this topic the following memory became front and center in my mind:
About 12 years ago my husband and I were dating and had taken a trip to Miami. We were about to go down to the beach and while I was in the bathroom getting ready, I looked at myself in the mirror and liked the way I looked. I liked the way my body looked in my bathing suit and I felt pretty.
So we go down to the beach and set up our chairs and umbrella to relax. About 15 minutes later a younger woman sits in front of us with a gorgeous body and she’s wearing a thong that shows off her beautiful body.
My brain immediately thinks “Ugh! I look horrible compared to her! This sucks!” Next thing I know I’m looking at my future husband out of the corner of my eye trying to see if he’s looking at this woman. I’m not focused on my book or the beautiful beach, I’m focused on him and feeling horrible about me.
Not only did this comparison ruin my time on the beach but it lingered throughout the rest of the trip. The next time I got dressed in the mirror I had negative thoughts like “Who are you kidding?” Then I continued to compare myself to other women and acted needy towards my future husband wanting validation that he found me attractive.
It’s only in retrospect that I can see how powerful the compare and despair cycle was but it’s often so internalized and unconscious that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Instead of choosing to think “She’s beautiful in her way and I’m beautiful in mine” my brain offered me comparison thoughts which led me to feel horrible and not have the trip I would have liked to have had.
When the cycle of compare and despair becomes a habit you are not only measuring your self-worth against others, you can also begin doubting decisions or getting stuck in confusion. If you have a habit of looking to the past, comparing it to the present and then feeling bad about a decision, you are strengthening the compare and despair cycle.
For example, a friend had been working for a company for a while, felt she needed to leave for various reasons and started working for a new company. She began feeling challenged at the new job and starting comparing the past job to her present job. Her brain was offering her thoughts like “It wasn’t really so bad at the old job” even though she had shared all the reasons why she knew it was the right decision at the time.
This type of compare and despair was becoming a problem because she was looking for validation for her past decision by feeling bad about her present job. She wasn’t aware of how much power she had to close the door from the past, make the current job be a great decision and feel however she wanted to feel.
When you haven’t worked on managing your mind, you will mistakenly believe you need to be different or have a different situation in order to feel happy; that is not true. The only way to get out of the cycle of compare and despair and feel better is to change the way you are thinking.
How to stop comparing and despairing
If you’ve noticed you’ve been on the compare and despair merry-go-round, you’re not alone. This issue affects most people whether they are aware of it or not.
The first step in changing the compare and despair pattern is to become aware of the thoughts your brain has been offering you. Your brain’s natural tendency to compare for survival can come in the form of:
- I’m not smart enough to get that job
- My marriage will never be as good as hers
- He got the promotion because he can work later than I can
- Must be nice to be able to drive a car like that
- I could never pull off a hair style like that
- I’m trying to eat healthy and she gets to drink soda and look like that?
- He may have been difficult but at least he was more romantic than this guy
If you’ve been thinking negatively about yourself or your situation for some time, it’s important to uncover those repetitive thoughts. Those are the thoughts creating feelings like a lack of self-confidence and regret. Since your thoughts are always fueling your emotions it’s no wonder you haven’t been feeling great.
What you think about yourself and your decisions will not only affect how you feel but it will also determine the actions you take. In my example about the trip I took to Miami with my future husband, my negative thoughts about my body created a feeling of shame which led me to seek validation from him as well as distract me from the relaxing, romantic trip we were on.
Once you have the awareness of the thoughts creating your compare and despair cycle, it’s time to own them and not just sweep them under the rug. When learning how to manage your mind it can be tempting to notice that you feel bad and want to jump right away to feeling better without getting clear about what created the bad feeling in the first place.
For the friend who was feeling regret about the new job, it was important for her to get clear about the thoughts creating the feeling of regret. She discovered that her thought was “I think I made a mistake”. Once she was clear about the thought it was time to take a look at the actions she was taking at the new job because of the feeling of regret.
She realized she wasn’t giving the new job a chance because she was so stuck in the belief that she made a mistake. She could see the thought, feeling, action pattern that had also shown up in other areas of her life where she had made a decision and then regretted it because the new situation was unfamiliar.
She let that awareness settle in for a little while and continued to notice how it showed up in her experience of the new job. Once she gave it some time, she was open to the new thought “I made the right decision to leave” and her brain began giving her proof. By practicing this new thought she began to feel more comfortable with the new challenges and actually saw the growth that was available.
Whether you are comparing yourself, your situation or your decisions, just know that it’s a normal function of your brain to want to compare. However, it’s also important to see how the compare and despair cycle affects how you feel about your life.
You have more power than you realize to get off the merry-go-round of compare and despair and it begins with awareness. By taking charge of your brain and directing it towards thoughts that create better feelings, actions and results you can create self-confidence and give yourself all the approval you desire.
- Both sides of the comparison coin are an issue because you are still criticizing yourself and looking for relief in the form of more comparisons.
- Since survival of the fittest is the evolutionary path humans have taken, your brain’s motivation for survival has been to measure you against others, build connections that keep you safe and be on the lookout for any threats.
- If you’ve been thinking negatively about yourself or your situation for awhile, it’s important to uncover those repetitive thoughts.
- The only way to get out of the cycle of compare and despair and feel better is to change the way you are thinking.
- When learning how to manage your mind it can be tempting to notice you feel bad and want to jump right away to feeling better without getting clear about what created the bad feeling in the first place.
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