Compare & Despair

Our tendency to compare and despair has been around as long as we have. And it can be good and bad.

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Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay
Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

Compare and despair is not new. It wasn’t created by social media or Leave it to Beaver. In fact, the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” — our impulse to want what our neighbor has — came from a comic strip that debuted in 1913. And I suspect that the tendency began long, long before then, perhaps when Grog looked at Zog and realized he had more food and a warmer blanket or one cow looked enviously at another’s horns.

Now that’s not to say that social media hasn’t amplified our compare and despair culture. Now, we can compare and despair from the comfort of our own bed, while commuting to work, or while going to the bathroom (yes, I know you’ve scrolled Insta while going to the bathroom. We all have). Now, we have hundreds — if not thousands — of people with whom we can compare and despair on a daily basis. We can compare houses. We can compare abs. We can compare shoes. We can compare clothing, hair, vacations, income, colleges, the apparent success of our children vs. their children, or the green of our neighbor’s grass.

The tendency is natural. We are born to strive. We are born to compete. It is natural to want more than we have and striving can be a good thing. Except when it is not.

It is not when compare and despair drives feelings of inadequacy. When it makes us feel less than. When it makes us feel like a failure. When we get so caught up in wanting what she has because she has it that we lose sight of the things we want because we want them. 

So if this tendency is natural, how do we rein it in when it is doing us more harm than good? It is almost impossible for us to not compare and despair. Almost.

First, it is okay to look at something your friend has, done or acquired and think: wow, that is cool. I want to do that. And if it is something you really want, put it on the list and work towards it. Other people, and even social media, can be a wonderful way to discover new possible experiences, adventures, and places (okay, and awesome new mascara or a dress that would be perfect on you).

Second, you must abandon any feelings of scarcity. Meaning, you can’t look at what your high school nemesis has and think, well, because she published a book, that means I can’t. Her success does not mean your failure. Quite to the contrary, if she did, so can you. Her success can be a roadmap to your own success.

Third, remember that there are always, always, always things you do not see. We are not able to see “behind the scenes of happy,” as my cousin Dana put it so well on a walk last summer. That seemingly perfect family? Well, who knows. Really, who knows. 

Fourth, strive to stay present. Compare and despair is always, by its nature, either looking forward or looking backward: I wish I had X, or this vacation isn’t as good as the last vacation. Where you are right now — what is wonderful about your life and what is challenging about your life — has nothing to do with where she is. 

Finally, it is all about gratitude and this is what you must remember: the things for which you are grateful, she might not have. This morning, I’m grateful that I feel strong and healthy: she might be staring down a root canal. This morning, I’m grateful for the dog sleeping at my feet who has given my family so much love and joy: she might never have experienced the love of a wonderful pet. This morning, I’m grateful that my parents are alive and healthy: she might be watching her mother succumb to dementia. No one’s life is perfect. No one is without challenge. 

So sure, keep your eyes open for new ideas, new inspiration, or the perfect shade of lip gloss. Let other people’s success motivate and inspire you. But do not compare, because your path is not her path. And do not despair because your path is not her path.

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