It is human nature to compare yourself to others, whether favorably or unfavorably. Favorable comparisons enhance self-esteem and make people feel better about their life circumstances, while continually comparing yourself negatively to others can have the opposite effect.
People compare themselves to others in all arenas of life. Mental health is no exception. Unfortunately, comparing your own mental health issues to those of your friends, family, colleagues, or celebrities can lead to a worsened emotional state. Here are three ways that people compare their mental illness to others’, and the negative effects of these comparisons.
When You Compare Your Mental Illness to Others With the Same Mental Illness, It Can Make You Feel Inadequate
It is wonderful that people like Mariah Carey “come out” as having bipolar disorder, because it destigmatizes mental illness. However, celebrities being open about their mental health issues can be a double edged sword. Most human beings have not accomplished as much in their lives as a star like Mariah Carey, and if your own struggles with bipolar disorder have not been set against a backdrop of fame and fortune. It is easy to think that you are a failure even at having a mental illness! It is a similar result if you struggle with depression and hear about your brother-in-law with depression who still manages to make six figures and travel to exotic locations.
It’s Easy to Compare One Mental Illness to Another and Think You’ve Gotten the Short End of the Stick
As sad as it may be to admit, many people have often joked about how “lucky” they would be if they just had the “willpower” of anorexia. Often, clients with bulimia or binge eating disorder feel this way. Similarly, people with constant depression may wish that they had the supposed respite and euphoria that mania would provide. This thinking is dangerous, not only because these conditions are wildly disparate, but also because each comes with its own tremendous challenges. No one who actually suffer from one of these disorders would wish them on anyone else.
Others’ Recoveries May Feel Faster Than Your Own
Support groups, whether online or in person, can be fantastic sources of help and comfort for those struggling with mental illness. However, they can also provide comparison points that aren’t very useful. Everyone starting out in a support group feels like they will never be 100 days sober, or months past their last binge, or socializing again, or whatever is the focus of their group.
If any of these resonate with you, it is integral to recognize the negative impact of comparisons on your mental health, and on your recovery. Everyone’s mental health journey is different, and no two individuals have the same path to emotional health.
Often, we see what others want us to see, or we don’t see the meandering path that led to their recovery. The brother-in-law who is a successful banker may have taken years to get through college, or even dropped out. The celebrity with a history of mental illness may have had horrible downturns in her life that you would not envy, even for a taste of her fame. Thinking about how little you actually know about others’ lives can help you maintain objectivity in the face of envy and shame.
Similarly, whatever meeting you go to for the first time, you will likely be the least far along your recovery journey — the first step is always the furthest from the finish. Instead of dwelling on that, why not visualize yourself in a few months, being one of the group members who is furthest along their recovery path, and who can be a resource and guide for others on the same journey.
Comparisons that make you feel dejected and inferior are never good for you. Everyone has an individual mental health path to walk, and focusing on your own place on that path is much more helpful than looking around at others. Working with a therapist can often ground you, and help you recognize your own unique strengths, instead of making comparisons between yourself and others.