Comparison - The Shortcut to More Suffering
There’s something very paradoxical about comparing myself to others that’s hard to pin down. I know it causes me to suffer, yet it’s so alluring and so insidious that I keep taking the bait again and again.
If you’re reading this and you’re human, chances are you can relate. According to social comparison theory (first developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954), we compare ourselves to others in order to evaluate our own opinions and abilities. This can be in the form of upward comparisons (comparing yourself to someone you perceive to be better than you) or downward comparisons (comparing yourself to someone you perceive to be worse off than you). This act of comparing allows us to define ourselves in relation to others.
While some people report social comparison in certain situations to be helpful, I would say it’s probably a good thing to avoid in recovery from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are often accompanied by perfectionism, competitiveness and obsessiveness, all of which tend to lead to increased negative self-image and this in turn, perpetuates disordered behaviours. Eating disorders are also notorious for being sneaky and playing games with our minds, making it that much harder to separate the truth from the story that the “ED” would like you to believe.
When I was deep in my eating disorder I compared myself to others as a way to justify my disordered behaviours, to myself and to those around me. The big ones were diet and exercise. I would go on YouTube every day and watch videos of other guys who were eating a certain diet and doing loads of exercise and take that on for myself. This mindset was very destructive because it kept me stuck in denial for longer than I care to admit. I thought if other guys my age were doing it why shouldn’t I be able to do it. The worst part was that if I didn’t do as much exercise one day or allowed myself to eat more, I considered myself a failure which further ingrained those negative comparisons.
The same thing happened when I started making an effort to recover. First, it took me a long time to actually believe that I had a problem. I thought that because I ate three meals a day and had the energy to exercise, I couldn’t possibly be anorexic. The fact of being male didn’t help the situation. Guys aren’t supposed to have eating disorders, right? I felt so ashamed and afraid of what people would think of me that I was always trying to cover it up by acting like I was just intensely interested in fitness and nutrition. I was always trying to act normal, but I could never do it no matter how hard I tried and I was finally forced to acknowledge that I had a problem.
When I finally worked up the courage to pursue treatment, my biggest fear was that I was not "sick enough" to be there. Again, I was comparing myself to other people I didn’t even know and had never seen but could only imagine must be sicker than me and thus more deserving of help. Looking back, I realize how problematic this thinking was. I perceived myself as not being as good at my eating disorder as these people who I didn’t even know, and that just made me want to engage my disordered behaviours even more. Even now, after all that I’ve been through, I often find myself doubting that I ever even had a problem.
The realization that recovery means doing things differently than others in order to get healthy again was very important for me. I still have to remind myself constantly that comparing myself to the people around me is futile: I don’t know their story, maybe they’re healthy maybe they’re not, maybe they have an eating disorder maybe they don’t. It’s all relative. All that matters is what I need to do for myself, to get healthy again and that’s going to look different for everyone.
In today’s social media steeped culture, it’s probably not realistic to avoid social comparison entirely. I think the more logical approach is to notice when it’s happening and to replace the negative self-talk with a gentle reminder that it’s not the way to go. Meditation has helped me tremendously with this practice. It’s amazing what sitting still for a few minutes letting go of my thoughts and judgements and following my breath can do!
I still have a long way to go, but I now know that basing my progress and success and worth on what others are doing is only going to lead to more suffering. Instead I attempt to focus on what makes me the unique human being that I am. After all, I’m pretty sure we weren’t all put here on earth to be exact clones of each other. What would be the point of that? Diversity is the spice of life. As long as we compare ourselves to those around us, we are just buying into the game that the eating disorder wants us to play, which - no matter how alluring it may seem - is not a game worth playing. It’s a game that leads to a lot of misery and depression and - if you play long enough - death.
So instead let’s celebrate the fact that out of all the people on this planet, no one else is exactly like you. How cool is that!
- Dareios Katsanikakis