One of the biggest factors that holds people back from talking about their mental health comes from comparing themselves to others. Why would we want to sit in a room and talk about our problems when know someone out there in the world has it worse?
We spend so much time comparing our lives to other people, from the things we own to the things we feel. In 1954, a chap called Leon Festinger wrote all about it. The Social Comparison Theory states that ‘there exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities.’ Or in other words, it's within out little human natures to compare ourselves to each other.
THE COMPARISON COMPLEX
Upward comparison is when we compare ourselves with people with think are better. Downward comparison, when we compare with people we think are worse. Within that is passive downward, when we take the previous condition into consideration, and active downward when we compare in a demeaning, harmful way. Even though we all do it, comparing ourselves with others can lead to deep dissatisfaction, guilt, remorse and self-destructive behaviour. And whilst it's easy to say, I don’t want to compare myself to others, it's not easy to actually do.
A small lining is that within the nine (NINE!) hypothesis put forward by Festinger is one that says, ‘the tendency to compare oneself to another person decreases as the difference between their opinions and abilities become more divergent.’ Or, more simply put, the more similar we are to someone, the more we compare ourselves to them because the differences are so much more noticeable.
On my part, I have spent most of life comparing myself to my sister. My sister is extroverted, bubbly, she could make friends in her sleep. She’s outgoing, lively, life of the party. As a child, I wanted to be as well behaved and as good as she was. As a teen, as friendly and fun. But I’m sure there are things I do that she can’t, I’ve never really asked, and the reason that the differences between us are so stark, is because in almost every other aspect we’re the same.
Neither of us liked sport, she was happiest in an art room, me the library. We both hate mushrooms and love the sea side, we both love spy films and have the same, very childish sense of humour. We love dogs, hate tomatoes and get very excited over new pens. So when something is different between us, her love of colour, my avoidance of it, it's noticed so much by us, and everyone around us, that it’s difficult to ignore. How many times have we heard ‘you and your sister are really different’?
EVERYONE'S STORY IS WORTH HEARING
The problem here is that within all the comparisons and distinctions, and all the time spent thinking, if I only could do/be/feel more like she does, I’ve missed the most important and valuable thing. My sister and I are so similar, so close, that for my entire life my best friend has always been her. There’s always been someone who can speak my language, sympathise, empathise and understand, even if she couldn’t relate. And in terms of mental health, we can think that our problems aren’t as crucial or serious as other peoples and maybe they aren’t but it’s missing the point. Other people have problems. Out there, on this blog, in the world, are so many people who suffer with mental health.
The community for people like us is vast, and when we stop a minute and step back from thinking ‘well it's not as bad as theirs’, consider that they might be someone looking at you, thinking the exact same thing. And if they did, what would you do? You wouldn’t degrade them or think less of them, you wouldn’t say ‘mines worse than theirs what right to they have to complain’? No one thinks that way.
In the words of my old counsellor (hi, Anna) everyone’s story is worth hearing. Rather than comparing our mental health to other people, think about how similar you must be to them for it to be so noticeable. My sister has had her own struggles with mental health, but whilst it's different to mine, whilst she doesn’t ramble on about it to strangers on the internet, it's something we share, something we all share, and that, in my own lovely opinion, is worth so much more than the need to drag ourselves even further down.
We can inflict so much damage on ourselves when instead, we should be looking after ourselves. It’s in our nature to compare, but it’s also in our nature to form connections with other people, so instead of focusing on the differences, investigate what you share. No one is in this alone.
WHAT I LEARNT FROM THIS EXPERIENCE:
Comparing is something we all do, so odds are there is someone out there looking at you, wishing they were more like you in some way. Take it into consideration to try and balance out how you see yourself.
The closer we are to someone, the more we compare. But the closer we are, the easier it should be to talk about, learn from each other and help each grow.
My sister may be good at art but I’m good at English, we each have things we can do better, worse or as well as other people. Stick to what you can do and don’t focus on the things you struggle with. Everyone has a story.
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