compare/despair – a toxic habit

One of the most common and most destructive mental habits that I see people suffering from in my therapy practice is that of habitually comparing themselves to others – and feeling terrible in the process. To do this occasionally is normal and unavoidable; however, when this occupies too large a part of one’s automatic psychological functioning, it exacerbates depression, anxiety, self-defeating behaviors, negative self-concept and other unhealthy realities.

How often do you compare yourself to others’…

  • …appearance?
  • …possessions?
  • …life circumstances?
  • …romantic relationships?
  • …finances and career?
  • …personality?
  • …neighborhood and apartment?

There are endless ways in which we tell ourselves that we are “less-than” others, that we are “not-enough” or that we “do not have enough.”

Years ago I was talking to a friend and I was going on and on about my own drama in relation to what someone else was going through.

He sighed knowingly and said, “Yea, that whole compare/despair thing.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

“Compare/despair?” I asked.

He replied, “Yea, you know when we compare, we despair. It’s like – when we choose the behavior, we choose the consequence.”

tending to the activity of your mind

Cultivating the skills that enable us to identify and replace destructive mental habits is the basis of much of contemporary psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy. The founders of this particular school of thought knew well that they were building upon philosophies and principles that were around for thousands of years. Their contribution was to systemize these ideas so they could be disseminated throughout the field of mental health to counteract what they took to be the perniciousness of Freudian dogmatism. The argument was that psychoanalysis located a seemingly all-knowing power within the analyst/therapist, leaving clients overly-dependent and disempowered. They argued also that psychoanalysis was, in general, not making people well.

shifting the power

One of the foundational principles of the newer generation of psychotherapies in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (i.e. Gestalt psychotherapy, Reality Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Psychodrama, Socio-metrics, etc.) was the commitment to empower clients/patients so that the therapist was needed less and less over a much shorter period of time as compared to psychoanalysis. The point was to equip suffering people with practical ideas, tools and strategies that they could utilize independently in their lives, to enhance their own experience and their own growth.

I tell clients often that what they do outside of the weekly therapy session is more important than what happens inside it; if they are not actively using the tools we discuss and if they are not taking emotional risks and experimenting with new attitudes and behaviors during those other 167 hours of the week, personal growth will simply not occur.

shifting our priorities

Changing the habits of our minds (and hearts) is a learning and a reconditioning process that we need to prioritize in our lives. No one can do it for us – we must take charge of the process. It takes creativity, effort and a desire for lifelong learning on our parts. The good news is that when we do the work, the results are far beyond what we could have imagined; it profoundly impacts our ongoing moods, the quality of our relationships and the trajectory of our careers.

Whenever people ask me in my therapy practice, “What can I do” to change a certain situation, my answer always includes, among other things, taking increased responsibility for the activity of their own minds in the situation. What this means and looks like depends upon the context, but as a general principle, its value cannot be over-estimated.

Tools for personal growth

Mindfulness is the act of paying extra attention to the activity of our minds and hearts. It is a tool we can use to ‘catch ourselves’ drifting into compare/despair.

Just for today – notice your own tendency to drift toward compare/despair – and when you find yourself engaging in this destructive habit, do something different. Make another choice.


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