Why Comparing Yourself to Others in Recovery is a Losing Game
For most people, whether they’re entering an inpatient treatment program or slipping into their first 12-Step meeting, beginning recovery from addiction is an uncertain time. You aren’t sure whether you are doing the right things or if you have any chance of success in the long-term. When we aren’t sure what to do, we instinctively look around to see what other people are doing.
While this might get you through your first few meetings without making too many faux pas, comparing what you’re doing to what others are doing is not a great approach to recovery. Here’s why.
Comparison Makes You Unhappy
First of all, comparing yourself to others is perhaps the fastest way to wreck your mood. There have been quite a few studies on the psychology of social comparisons and they all agree that it’s bad for your mental health. One study found that people who made more frequent social comparisons were more likely to experience guilt, envy, regret, and defensiveness.
They were also more likely to lie, blame others, and have unmet cravings. All of these are counterproductive for anyone trying to stay sober. Lying, guilt, envy, resentment, and cravings are all typical elements of addictive behavior and you want to move away from those as much as possible.
It’s important to keep in mind that comparisons don’t just make you feel bad when you come up short. One study of participants' tendencies to make comparisons on Facebook found that participants who made more comparisons experienced more depressive symptoms, even when they felt like they were better than the other person. Something about the comparison itself makes us unhappy.
Perhaps it promotes self-consciousness or self-criticism, even when the scale tips in our favor. This is an important point, given that the early weeks and months of recovery are already emotionally challenging and many people who struggle with substance use issues have mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders as well.
Comparisons Are Always Misleading
If the primary purpose of comparing yourself to others is to orient yourself or measure your progress, then comparisons aren’t very useful anyway. First of all, your needs in treatment and recovery will be different from everyone else’s. You have different strengths, weaknesses, personal history, addiction history, values, and goals. You have different medical and psychological needs. Some people will have a lot of family support and others won’t. In the end, you’re never really comparing apples to apples.
Second, you only know what others want you to know. It’s entirely possible to seem like you have everything together but still be struggling on the inside. If you doubt it, just consider how long you were able to keep your substance use issues secret. Someone who seems to be doing great may or may not actually be doing great. You just have to be comfortable with the fact that you can never really know where you rank among your sober peers and that such a rank would be so qualified as to be useless anyway. You just have to accept some degree of ambiguity.
Everyone Has Different Needs and Goals in Recovery
Since everyone’s situation in recovery is different, everyone will have different needs and therefore different goals. Your recovery plan should reflect your individual goals and values. One person may be invested more in repairing family relationships while another may be more focused on dealing with a mental health issue.
Your goals and therefore your recovery plan will, therefore, look different from anyone else’s. You’re going to get off track if you start feeling the need to start competing in areas that aren’t central to your own recovery. It’s much better to keep your eyes on your own particular prize.
Comparisons Create a Competitive Environment
Finally, you don’t want to feel like you’re competing against your peers in recovery. There may be some limited space for friendly competition in recovery--for example, if you and a friend are challenging each other to stick to a healthy diet or exercise regimen--but overall, you want to encourage feelings of mutual support. Making constant comparisons creates a mindset of competition.
You feel like when someone else succeeds, then you lose. In reality, the opposite is true: When one person succeeds, you’re all a little better off. Instead of comparing yourself to your peers in recovery, try to be happy for them when they do well, and support them when they struggle.
How Can You Break the Habit?
Comparison can be a tough habit to break. The first step is to just accept that comparison won’t do you any good. You’re all sort of on separate journeys together. Second, be conscious of when you’re actually making comparisons. Notice what it feels like to need that kind of reassurance and notice how that feeling of grasping makes you feel worse.
It may be a good idea to limit your social media use since social media use tends to promote social comparison and defensiveness. In fact, comparison is what most studies have focused on as the reason social media use exacerbates feelings of depression and loneliness.
Finally, instead of comparing your progress to others’, figure out more relevant ways to track your own progress. This might be by setting goals and subgoals related to recovery, such as attending 90 meetings in 90 days or it might be tracking your progress according to goalposts you came up with along with your therapist for measuring your progress. What matters is that you set your own goals and stay engaged in the process.
At The Foundry, we know that recovery from a substance use disorder is always an individual journey. No two clients are the same and we work with you individually to create a recovery plan that will promote your long-term success. That’s why we use a variety of proven methods to help you overcome the diversity of challenges you’re likely to face along the way. To learn more about our approach to treatment, call us at (844) 955-1066.