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How Comparison Works Against Us

When I told my friend, Jay, that I was going to spend five days in Oslo, Norway, he immediately chimed in that I should fly to Stockholm, Sweden, because it’s a much more interesting city. When I shared that I had just returned from Philadelphia, he noted, “well, it’s ok, but it isn’t Manhattan.” And when I suggested that we share a meal at a local Japanese restaurant, he recalled a great sushi place in Seattle, Washington. (We live in West Virginia, not exactly the culinary capital of the world. Then again the food is decent.)

When I find myself becoming annoyed by Jay’s “this is better than that” way of thinking, I remind myself that I’m also guilty. In fact, we all compare. It’s a fundamental human impulse. Unlike Jay, I usually don’t focus on cities or restaurants, rather I compare myself to family members and friends whose lives have not been touched by addiction. And when I go down that rabbit hole, I become discouraged and depressed.

We compare ourselves to those in our personal orbit: family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We compare what we value, like appearance, relationships, wealth, professional achievement and goals. Our comparisons can be either upward or downward. “I want to become a great teacher, like Mrs. Jones,” or “I’m glad that I’m not living in a homeless shelter.”

My journey has included my adult son who abused substances. The poor choices he made in the past and the resulting consequences have limited his life’s path. Not only does his situation break my heart, but it sometimes feeds unhealthy comparison. According to social psychologist Abraham Tesser, we are threatened more by loved ones who excel in areas we define ourselves by—like parenting—than by strangers who excel in the same way. Recently, I attended a family reunion. (Family and alumni reunions can be minefields for comparison.) One cousin has five adult daughters, all but one married with children, successful careers, and comfortable homes. Another cousin’s son is in medical school in LA. We shared details of our lives, old photos, old memories, and lots of delicious food. My son, who did not attend the reunion, has a limited income and erratic job history. Thankfully, today he’s in recovery but carries a lot of baggage from the past. So what could I say when asked about him? Not much. Only that he was doing the best he can. They nodded and didn’t press for details.

When I evaluated my parenting skills compared to my cousins, I came up short. Yet I should know better. After all I believe the 3C's to be true. “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” Still I found myself questioning my parenting skills. What did I do or not to do to cause my son’s life to turn out as it has? And why was I comparing my insides to their outsides?

As noted earlier, comparison is a fundamental impulse. We can’t avoid it. But we can control it by focusing on our own goals and how to achieve them. For me this means accepting my situation, loving my son as he is, being grateful for the many good things in my life and striving for peace and serenity. I do this by staying involved in my recovery group where often I’m reminded that “comparison is the thief of joy.”

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