Stop Comparing & Despairing
A couple of years ago someone told me that she began to experience more freedom in her life when she learned to stop “comparing and despairing.” Right off the bat, I was skeptical at how easy she made this shift in mindset sound. It wasn’t so much the “comparing” part that I found to be difficult, but the latter. It felt quite lofty, unrealistic even to suggest that one could live a life free of self-pity. Especially someone like me.
I’m an Enneagram Type Four—the Individualist. At my best I am creative and expressive and at my worst I’m irrationally sensitive and, at times, painfully self-absorbed. Fours have this unique ability to make any situation about ourselves, even if the situation in question is not remotely about us at all.
For me, this manifests as a tendency to feel sorry for myself. Especially in group dynamics, I tend to find a single thing that makes me different from everyone else and dwell on it until I feel isolated. I’ve subconsciously adopted a narrative that everything and everyone is working against my wellbeing.
If I’m being completely honest, sometimes it’s preferable, enjoyable even, to lean into this narrative. There’s a strange comfort in feeling sorry for oneself, in making ourselves victim to an unknown force.
Perhaps it is simpler to blame an outside force for the things that unravel in our lives than to rationalize a less romanticized meaning. It is far more interesting to say that the reason someone I went on a date with ghosted me was because there is some sort of curse on my love life, rather than to admit that perhaps the connection between us just wasn’t really there. Or that the reason all of my friends keep moving away is because I’m destined to be alone, rather than to acknowledge that I am often drawn to people who are very ambitious.
What feels even worse is accepting that sometimes, there isn’t a reason at all. Sometimes (quite often, actually) bad things happen, and there is not a traceable reason as to why.
I’ve spent much of my life in this muddy state of self-pity, running circles in my brain, convincing myself that absolutely no one in the world had it worse than me. When my friends would share their stories of heartbreak, disappointment and the like, no matter how severe, I found a reason as to why their situation did not compare to mine. Of course, I didn’t actually believe this, cognitively, but on an emotional level, it felt entirely too true.
Wallowing in self-pity is an exhausting way to live. Weirdly (or not-so-weirdly) enough, making yourself the center of the universe is a lot of work. It requires twisting reality to fit a narrative that is extremely detrimental, and quite frankly, not true.
One day, something clicked for me when I came across—get this—a Twitter account dedicated to Enneagram Type Fours. This account quickly became both my favorite and least favorite Twitter account in existence. Their tweets often come with a bit of sting, but always suggest an alternative, more helpful way of thinking about myself and the world. Tweets like, “Today, notice if you are attached to having difficulties. Are you reluctant to let go of painful feelings, self-pity, and continual suffering? Can you be more balanced emotionally today?” This kind of tough love has been incredibly helpful for me.
One of the overarching themes I learned from following this account, is the importance of distinguishing between emotions and reality. It’s often easy to feed into our sensitivities and emotions to the point that they are indistinguishable from real life. And though we should honor our emotions and process them accordingly, it is also just as important to evaluate our emotional responses against the hard facts.
I’ve put this into practice by making space for my emotions through journaling or talking with friends, but following this up by writing out or verbally stating the measurable realities of the situation. I’ve also realized, that the side-by-side comparison of emotions and reality was a practice that my old therapist often facilitated during our sessions. For example, there are times when I feel very lonely and think that my friends don’t want to spend time together. Of course, the reality is often that my friends are busy, or our schedules simply didn’t line up.
Measuring my emotional responses against reality has helped me to feel less subject to my emotions, and to be more balanced about the way I think about myself and the people around me.
It has been quite freeing to believe, in fact, that I am not the center of the universe. Though I often feel like the world is out to get me, in reality, this is simply not true. I am just a person, living amongst billions of other people—people whose collective existences in conjunction with my own make for situations beyond my control.
It wasn’t until I allowed myself to embrace this utter minuteness that I began to feel at peace about the misfortunes I seemed to continually be facing. Although this is a less romanticized way to think about my life in the grand scheme of things, it is far more grounding. Though I am not completely in control of what happens to me in this life, I recognize that I have the power to dictate my response. I don’t have to be subject a false narrative about my life, or an unseeable force. Rather, I can rest in the fact that I am but another being in the universe with a unique and beautiful life path, that is continually unfolding before me.