Suffering By Comparison

Yesterday I invited a friend of mine to dinner- a writer I adore and respect. But after speaking to her for twenty minutes what I saw was a bitter woman who was very disenchanted. “I have no skills and I feel like my life has been a waste. I haven’t accomplished anything worthwhile!” she confessed.

Yet she is talented and prolific. She has been a rising star in her literary circle, with several credits to her name. But she never achieved the “big break” she had hoped for. To top it off, the financial reward for her devotion to creative writing has been meager, in spite of her hard work and numerous accomplishments.

I have known many successful individuals like this who have also expressed similar sentiments into their middle years. They have completed some of their ambitions, but happiness continues to elude them. They feel that they have thrown away their time chasing after dreams when their peers seem to be otherwise “right on track” with higher ranks and salaries.

Who’s smarter, prettier, richer? Who’s got a better car, a better husband, a summer home, a faster-track job? If you can’t stop comparing yourself to others, you’ve got a case of what Asian philosophers call “monkey mind” and “comparing mind”.

Constantly measuring ourselves against others is one of the surest ways to rob us of happiness in the present moment.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, writes about her writer envy with great candor and humor. “I got to look in some cold dark corners, see what was there, shine a little light on what we all have in common. Sometimes this human stuff is slimy and pathetic- jealousy especially so- but better to feel it and talk about it and walk through it than to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned.”

If I have any antidotes for managing the toxic emotion of feeling “less than” it would include the following:

Accept: In an interview recently, Michael J. Fox was quoted as saying, “My happiness grows in accordance with my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations. Thinking this way liberates me.” When you’re having an episode, just ask yourself if you can allow it to be there. Keep sitting with it. This often shifts the resistance and creates space. It also releases the shame. Then the jealous feelings have a chance to move and diffuse.

Make a list: Take into account what you do have. Dan Baker, PhD, author of What Happy People Know, recommends making a list on paper of things for which you are grateful. Describe, in detail, the five most joyful moments of your life. The five kindest things anyone ever did for you. Your five greatest achievements. Yes, you have problems too. Welcome to the human race. But think of the problems you currently do not have. Not having a toothache or a broken ankle, for example, can be a very pleasurable experience!

Focus on your own game: Put the energy you use watching other people into improving your own “hand”. If someone is enjoying greater success than you in some area, ask yourself: “Is there something I can learn from this other person? What are they doing differently to me? What strategies of theirs can I adopt?” Then use their techniques as motivation and get back to finding ways to inch forward. What can you offer the world that no one else can, with the resources and skills you have right now?