Compare and Despair

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One of the first phrases that I identified with in early recovery was “compare and despair.” Even as a child I’d look around and see what I thought others had and found myself coming up short.

I moved to New York as an adult and the comparisons started to get more frequent and more extreme. NYC is full of people who seem taller, thinner, smarter, richer, funnier, and somehow “better”. It was a kind of self-imposed torture that eventually became more of a prison, leading me to avoid certain situations, and increasing my isolation.

I heard someone talk about “compare and despair” behavior at a meeting and, finally, I had a name for my self-limiting and self-punishing habit. Now and again I’d catch myself in the act of comparing and I could head off the despair.

I met a number of the kinds of people I’d compare myself to throughout the process of recovery and one of the gifts was to hear them talk about their experiences. Despite all that I thought, they had too compared and despaired. Being wealthy, slender, famous, gorgeous, or brilliant hadn’t made them any happier than then next person.

In time, as I started to compare, I’d remember the stories of my fellow travelers and remind myself that we are all human, we all have suffering, and even those who looked or behaved in an enviable way had their own struggles. Slowly the comparisons became less frequent.

As part of my journey of recovery, I started to improve my self-care and took up the practices of yoga, and Pilates. I’d go to classes and hide in the back, trying to follow along as best I could. In these classes, there would often be some extremely accomplished practitioners. I’d find myself comparing my lack of poise, balance, strength and flexibility with them. In the meditative air of these classes, I was trapped for an hour with my “compare and despair” thoughts triggered, and nowhere to escape to. I would continue to go, but often I’d feel worse emotionally after a class than I did before.

Just when I felt like dissuaded and was considering quitting these healthy-but-triggering practices I happened on a great teacher, Leigh, who sensed my lack of ease. During a particularly challenging section, she told the class, “keep your attention on your own mat.” I’m not sure what it was about that phrase. Maybe it was the kindness of Leigh, maybe it was the simplicity of the phrase, or maybe I was just open to hearing it then because I was so near to quitting.

Whatever was at play in that moment made me understand that comparing and despairing was a choice. I could keep my attention on my own mat. I could be present in my experience. I could be curious about my own progress and not worry about how I stacked up against the perfection I perceived around me.I’m not sure that mental habits are ever completely removed. Just as experienced performers and athletes still get nervous before every event. Just as experienced sailors can still feel sea sick. A decade into recovery I still witness enviable extremes as I walk around New York. These days I have tools that help me enjoy the present: I appreciate the awesome, and keep my attention on my own mat.


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