The Mindful Way Through Compare and Despair

Ideas to transform compare and despair from Patty Bechtold at wiselifetherapy.com, Santa Rosa CA Therapist and Life Coach

Compare and despair. We’ve all been there, right? That moment when you compare something about yourself or your life to someone else’s.

Suddenly you find yourself tunneling down into distress and dismay, perhaps even despair. And you believe something’s not right about you. You’re not good enough or you don’t measure up in comparison to this other person.

Sometimes these moments are so obvious. But other times, not so much. They can actually be quite subtle.

For instance, you might not think reading about another woman’s morning ritual could trigger compare and despair. After all, isn’t that sort of thing harmless, something we all enjoy now and then?

Well, yes and no.

Here’s what I’m talking about: around this time last year I came across a detailed description of one woman’s morning ritual. It was written by a well-known personal growth blogger. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this. In fact, it seems to be a popular topic and I remember reading an e-book a few years ago that chronicled the morning rituals of an entire group of women.

And I still remember my reaction: I guess I should be doing something different when I get up in the morning. Something better.

You’ll notice I started shoulding myself in an instant, but I wasn’t even aware of it.

Almost as a knee-jerk I started questioning my own inner wisdom about what I truly need in the morning and felt slightly ashamed that I didn’t have it together like these other women did. I mean, their morning rituals sounded so lovely: scented candles and meditation and misty morning walks.

Now, I’m not saying that these women were intentionally trying to make other women question themselves. I’m pretty sure they had the best intentions, sharing what works for them in the hope that it will be helpful.

So it’s not exactly the message itself that has the power to bring on a case of compare and despair, but more about how we process and interpret it.

I think it has a lot to do with who we are as women. We’re relational beings by nature. Many of us yearn to feel closer and more connected to other women. And we love getting a sneak peak into other women’s lives. 

We’re also empathetic. We can often imagine what it’s like to stand in another woman’s life. So much so, in fact, that our imaginations can take us to a place where we begin to assume our own lives (or morning rituals, in my case) are somehow inadequate.

These days, of course, the process is speeded up by the onslaught of messages we receive from social media, often resulting in a kind of compare and despair that really does a number on our happiness and self-esteem.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think these messages, or our fascination with them, are going away anytime soon. 

So wouldn’t it be great if we could mindfully step back before we spiral into compare and despair? That would give us time to remember that our interest in other women’s lives comes from our heightened emotional intelligence and our natural inclination to empathize.

I’ve been practicing this during the past year and I’ve been really pleased with its power to transform almost any potential compare and despair experience into warm feelings of connection and closeness.

If you’d like to try it, here’s how my practice goes…

  • When you’re reading or thinking or taking in information about someone else’s life, pay attention to any body sensations that usually precede comparing and despairing for you (I usually get a sinking feeling and a tightening in my chest and stomach).
  • As soon as you notice the uncomfortable sensations, move your body in some way and gently tell yourself to stop, take a breath and observe what’s happening in your body.
  • Check to see if you’re having any negative thoughts about yourself or the other person. Distance yourself from the thought by saying, “it’s just a thought” as many times as you need to. You can also imagine your thoughts drifting by like leaves on a stream.
  • Check to see if you’re experiencing any difficult emotions about yourself or the other person (like feeling ashamed, inadequate, discouraged, irritated, jealous, insecure). Name and claim your emotions by simply stating them: In this moment, I feel discouraged.
  • When you’re ready, name and claim opposite or different emotions that are probably present too (like feeling curious, interested, attracted, engaged). 
  • Then trust your natural empathy to carry you into this other person’s life. Let your imagination loose and really try to stand in that life, let yourself experience and live it for a moment. Feel its joys and challenges, without judgment.
  • Allow yourself to feel connected to the person living this life. When you’re ready, step out of that life and come back into your own life. If it feels right, thank the person for letting you into their life for a moment.

This entire process usually takes me only a minute or two.

I find it very calming and relaxing. I love it because it calls on my imagination, in a positive, supportive way. And it’s almost like the other person has given me the gift of their lived experience, for a just a moment.

Of course, you may not have the same experience I do. So if it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry that you’re not doing it right. Instead, give yourself space to explore what your inner wisdom is telling you about what would help you through your own version of compare and despair.

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself. – John Steinbeck

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