THE BLOG
05/09/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Beware: To Compare May Lead to Despair

In my psychotherapy practice, I commonly hear clients comparing themselves to others and usually not coming out too favorably. I often hear statements like,

"I saw pictures of my old high school friend on Facebook and their life seems to have turned out so much better than mine!"

"My colleague seems to have such a charmed life and it makes me feel like such a loser."

"She has the perfect job, the perfect husband, even the perfect body -- she just seems to have it all."

In such comparisons, seems is the operative word. But a person's real life is rarely what it seems to be to the outside world -- or to their Facebook friends!

There is nothing new about comparing yourself to friends, relatives, or colleagues. What is relatively new is the barrage of images and posts we can use as ammo against ourselves in the comparing and despairing game. And very often, we tend to compare ourselves to someone we think has it all, causing us to zero in on the things that we think are missing in our own lives. The problem is that comparing in this way factors in only a fraction of a much larger picture. Rarely do people post pictures of themselves on Facebook when they have horrible indigestion or a raging headache. Rarely do people write on their timelines that they are filled with anxiety over a recent fight they had with a loved one, or that they are in the midst of intense grief or loneliness. We tend to put on a happy face, post happy pics, and tweet about happy times. And then others compare themselves to our fleeting moments and brief sentences, thinking they represent the full story -- which, of course, is never the case.

Too often we compare the complexity of our own life to the superficial "snapshots" of another person's. This can lead to some very unhappy introspection if we are not careful. When we unfavorably compare ourselves to our image of someone else, we often imagine that they have the qualities we think we are missing. So rather than develop and nurture those qualities within ourselves, we may divert our attention outward and beat ourselves up for not being as successful, happy, disciplined, creative, or fulfilled as someone else. Oftentimes, the person we're comparing ourselves to is someone we don't even know very well. If we did, we would understand that they more than likely have a myriad of their own issues, struggles, and insecurities.

The truth is that if someone constantly tells you that everything is always great, I would suspect that they are either lying, in denial, highly medicated, or a very rare enlightened being! Granted, there are people with really positive attitudes and people who seem to have an easier time of it than others; but we are all human, and we all experience pain, loss, and a variety of emotions.

Focusing on someone else and resenting what they have that we think we don't is what we therapists call projection. If you can catch yourself in the act of projection, you can really learn and grow from it. You can remind yourself that, "Hey, I need to nurture that quality in myself -- rather than beat myself up because she (or he) has it going on and I don't!"

Here is a recent example of projection: A client of mine who tends to feel bad about herself and her life had been continually comparing herself to her friends on Facebook. She would see their happy images and compare them to her unhappiest times and let's just say she was not "liking" her internal posts! So, we began to talk about the concept of projection. I asked her to write a list of all the qualities she was envious of when she looked at her friends' pictures and posts. The main ones were that they seemed so free and happy. They all seemed so confident while she felt so insecure. I asked her to pinpoint the times when she feels the most free and confident and then work on pumping up her sense of value. Then, whenever she looked at friends' pictures on her timeline and got triggered, she could use it as a signal that she needed to speak to herself more kindly and respectfully, rather than focusing on other people. My client came to understand that her projection of what she believed her friends had that she didn't could become a signal to work on what she wanted to develop in herself. Once she began to feel better about herself and her own life, she no longer got hooked into the compare-and-despair game.

I spent years lost in the 'despairing of comparing.' I was in some pretty low places at the time, and I chose to compare myself to people who weren't. I never bothered to look around and see that everyone, at one time or another, is battling something. We simply take turns. And when it is our turn to experience the challenging chapters of life, what we need most is to reach out for support and reach inward for compassion and kindness toward ourselves. We need to remind ourselves that the pain will pass and that there have been and will be moments of sweetness. What we don't need is to compare ourselves to someone whose life looks "perfect" and add fuel to the fire of our pain.

Decades ago, I had the profound experience of being in the role of the comparee, to coin a term. I was battling some pretty serious depression along with several addictions, one of them being bulimia. I had recently joined an eating disorders support group and was on my way into a meeting when I ran into another woman in my group. She had only met me a few times, and I later realized that she had made many assumptions about me, one of which was that my life was charmed. She stopped me in the parking lot and asked if she could get something off her chest. Her "something" turned out to be somewhat of a confession, which the group had encouraged us to do in order to stay current in our relationships and hopefully have less to binge over. I cannot recall her exact words, but they were something along the lines of, "I just want to say that I find myself comparing myself to you in group and I feel so bad about myself when I do. You seem to have it all. You're attractive, you have a nice car, you seem so bubbly, and you just seem to have it all together." I told her, "Honey, I just made myself throw up in the bathroom at a public gas station, you have got to be kidding me."

That experience did not save me from years of comparing myself to others and always coming up short, but it did have an impact. It left me with the knowledge that we really have no idea what someone else is going through -- no matter how they appear on the outside. It would be years before I learned to compare myself to myself instead of to others. And even more years before I would immerse myself in daily gratitude for what I have instead of comparing what I had to what I thought others had. It would be years before I learned the lesson that we all suffer and that I do not need to feel badly for my joy if someone else is in pain or badly for my pain if someone else is experiencing joy. We all just take turns, and the order in which we have these experiences is out of our control.

So, the next time you find yourself caught in the web of compare and despair, here are some tips for you to try:

• When you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else, remind yourself that they have already had, may currently have, and definitely will have many struggles in this life.

• Make a list of all the positive qualities you think the object of your comparisons has, and then begin to find those same qualities within yourself.

• The next time you see a perfect looking picture of someone on your Facebook page, remind yourself that it represents one single image in a lifetime of experiences, some of which are joyful, some of which are painful.

• Look around you and realize that everyone is the same on some level. See if you can wish everyone well, knowing that we are all doing the best we can with the tools we have been given. See if you can be compassionate toward someone in pain and happy for someone in joy, and then see if you can do that for yourself!

Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Northern California. Andrea is co-founder of InnerSolutions Counseling Services and co-author of The Don't Diet, Live-It Workbook. In addition to her specialty in eating disorders, she also has expertise in the areas of: substance abuse, depression, anxiety, grief and relationship repair. For more information on her book, her online course or other services, please visit: www.innersolutions.net or write to Andrea directly at: andrea@innersolutions.net