Is Comparing Yourself to Others Always a Bad Thing?

Let me answer the question my title poses:  I don’t think so.

I learned early on in my recovery two similar phrases that have served me well:

1.  Compare self to self, not self to others

2.  Don’t compare your insides to others’ outsides

Overall sage advice, and it can be especially relevant this time of year, when there is an endless to do list, followed by a scroll down Facebook lane to see all the things “others” have done that you have not.  It was a true revelation to me when it was pointed out that what people are presenting to the world is not necessarily what they are living, and that knowledge assisted me a great deal in letting go of the worry of what other people may (or may not) be thinking of me.

The corollary of comparing self to self is that you are seeking self-improvement in a continuous way; you are able to not only look at what needs improvement, but also celebrate that which has been improved.  All in all, an incredibly useful tool.

Sometimes, though, and maybe this is so obvious that it is almost silly to be writing down, sometimes it is necessary to compare myself to others, at least that’s the lesson I’m coming to learn.

Here’s an example:  last weekend, I was in New York for an annual get-together with my husband and friend.  As we typically do, my husband and I take my friend’s bedroom; my friend sleeps in his living room.  It is, as most in Manhattan are, a small apartment, and as such it is important to have respectful awareness of the people around you.

So we go to bed on the later side, and within 30 minutes I am awoken by a vaguely familiar feeling of discomfort, followed with lightning quick speed by a feeling of panic, and I shoot upright in bed.  My heart is pounding, and I am fighting the urge to want to jump up and create more space for myself.

In other words, I think I had a panic attack.

I say I think because, frankly, I do not feel remotely qualified to diagnosis myself with these types of illnesses.  I am, blessedly, free of disorders such as anxiety, or, for that matter, depression, so I’m not really even sure I know for certain what a panic attack looks or feels like.

Semantics aside, I am fighting to get a grip, and it occurs to me that it would not be disrespectful if I had to get up and use the bathroom.  So I did, and the ritual of doing so calmed me down.

For about 10 minutes.

After 3 trips to the bathroom, and worrying all the while that I am disturbing both my husband and my friend (and, to a lesser extent, the people who live below us), I sit up and try to take some calming breaths.

Now I know that sitting up will eventually call attention to myself (the bed is small, so anyone sharing the bed will eventually feel the difference between a prone person and an upright one), and soon it will be truth time:  do I tell my husband what’s really going on, or I just gloss it over with a half-truth (I’m uncomfortable/I can’t sleep/I’m not feeling well)?

There is a reason this decision is a difficult one:  the only other time I have experienced this anxious feeling was as a direct consequence of my active addiction.  So now not only am I panicking because of an apparent panic attack, now I’m panicking at the thought of alarming my husband about the status of my sobriety.  Seriously, sometimes it is tough to live in this head.

Of course, my program of recovery forced me to tell the truth, and, as usual, the truth did set me free.  Somehow, talking through the symptoms I was experiencing, and really just the simple admission, “I feel anxious, and I feel anxious that I feel anxious,” had a calming effect, and after a time I was able to fall back to sleep.

But what’s been dogging me in the days since is the wondering… why?  Why did that happen?  Was it a sign?  The only other time this has happened to me was when I was chemically altered, so why would it happen without the aid of chemicals?

I have a tendency towards claustrophobia (again, I hedge on using this term, it is completely self-diagnosed), and so when I am in crowded spaces I get those panicky feelings, and, if severe enough, I am compelled to find more space for myself.  One example is when I’m in the middle of a bed between two people, sometimes it gets bad enough that I feel like I’m almost propelled out of that space by some internal force.  That being said, I at least have some understanding of root causes.  Being woken up by it seems extreme, and random, and scary.  I do not feel stressed, there is nothing in particular on my mind, my sobriety is strong, and I am not at odds with anyone in my life.  So back to why, why, WHY?

This circles around to my original question, and my answer should be obvious:  sometimes comparing yourself to others is a good thing.  Because when I look at that incident, and compare it to stories I have read on various blogs, heard from friends and family who suffer from diagnosed anxiety, and even read about in magazines and books, I realize that I am not unique, and I am not, as Monica Lewinsky would say, patient zero with panic attacks.

And knowing that allows me to take a deep breath, and let go of the vicious circle of unanswered questions.

Today’s Miracle:

Heading out to see my three-year-old nephew in his first pre-school theatrical performance,  a sure-fire way to get into the holiday spirit!


Posted on December 18, 2014, in Recovery, Self-Care and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Panic attacks suck. Big hug.
    Sometimes small things can trigger them for me. Too much caffeine, tiredness, hunger or over eating. Not enough exercise.
    My anxiety comes out more like you wrote. The need to find air. Get out from the middle of the bed!

    Thinking about it too much doesn’t help. Lol

    I think you were just tired and in a strange, small space. It’s s busy time f year. Give yourself some extra care. Drink water.

    Tonight will be better!


    • Thanks Anne, I appreciate it. I actually thought about you as I was contemplating writing this post, I remember reading once that you have had issues with anxiety.

      And check, check, check and BIG check on every point you made above. I did not know that, and I am guilty of each symptom.

      So nice to know that I can write of a troubling issue, and have friends to help me understand and correct! A huge thank you for this comment, it truly helped me!


  2. I’m sure it was being in the small space on a small bed. The problem is that once it’s recognized then we, as you said, become anxious about being anxious which exacerbates the problem more! It is tough to live in these heads of ours.

    But if it happens again, remember how you handled it this time and do it again. When I was having these attacks (seemingly at random) I would breathe through them and keep chanting to myself, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay” which seemed to help. Eventually they stop coming.

    On a lighter note…New York at Christmas is magical. I’m jealous.



    • Sherry, we go every year at this time, and it is truly magical. My friend lives a block and a half from Times Square, so to say we are in the center of the action is not an understatement. So much fun.

      The more I think about it, the more I think you are right… that bed is quite a bit smaller than I am used to.

      And great advice about remembering what works, because I would be the one to surely forget it.

      Hope your holiday is equally magical!


  3. I read somewhere ‘to never compare your behind the scenes to somebody elses highlight reel.’ And that is the truth because we can’t possibly know how a person is doing or feeling just based off of filtered instagram photos!!


  4. I wonder if what you are talking about is identification rather than comparison. Semantics, no doubt! I am terrible in this category, in general – this comparison thing. Was just talking about this to one of the guys in the running club last night, about how I have to watch comparing myself to others (I am pretty much the slowest person in the club). And i really do have to watch. It’s probably one of my biggest char defects. I get good moments and then I go on a streak. Your post is great timing, because guess where I am these days?? lol

    Anyway, glad that you were open and honest and also were self-aware regarding this. Just another moment of clarity for you!! Love it.



    • I think you are exactly right, Paul, that is an important point. I guess maybe what I’m attempting to talk about is the balance… not comparing and and always coming up short, and not isolating and figuring you are the only one with troubles such as yours. And I probably did not write enough about the concept of balance. I was starting to go to that place of “nobody understands me,” and that is always a dangerous for me, and always leads to trouble.

      Just remember this, as you’re feeling the slowest… there is someone infinitely slower down in Pennsylvania. And when I say slower, I actually mean arrested activity. And thank you for the reminder that regular exercise might actually help this problem a bit too (and I know that is not what you intended, but nonetheless, it did just occur to me, so thanks!).

      Hope the holiday season is going spectacularly in Canada… you know what I was thinking would be fun? A recipe exchange amongst us bloggers. I remember once you did a cranberry vinaigrette last year… wouldn’t it be fun for us to all share our favorite items? I need to think of a way to promote this, I’ll figure it out soon!


  5. Reading your story reminded me that I had this thing about “panic attacks” in department stores during my active alcoholism. I would just get completely dizzy around manikins, and would never consider taking an escalator more than two floors up – always feeling the need for a quick escape because I was going to pass out or something. For the same reason, I would never take a bus – some sort of claustrophobic something or the other. One day I was about six months sober and had gone to a downtown department store to buy a gift for someone – but I needed to go up to the third floor. In my new sobriety, I figured to give it a shot. I got up to the third floor, bought the thing, and was making my way down when it hit me like never before. I absolutely froze not knowing what to do. On the second floor landing there were some chairs set next to the elevators and sitting in the chairs were two very senior folks I knew from my noon AA group. I went over to them, casually chatted for a few moments and it all went away. I don’t recall having that trouble since.

    I had the same experience with flying for a long period of time, then it went away.

    And I qualify as you, not wanting to put on medical diagnostic labels, but like so much of what was wrong with me during my active addiction, just taking the alcohol and drugs away helped deal with the issues. And I certainly don’t mean to pretend that all issues were resolved via 12-step meetings – but a whole bunch were.

    I will never forget how proud I was of my psychiatric diagnoses during my drinking days – manic depression, narcissistic, etc. And I equally remember how embarrassing the last diagnosis that got me committed to a detox unit – chronic alcoholism.

    Have a great sober holiday season!


    • Robert, thank you for sharing that incredible story. Two members of the fellowship just so happen to be somewhere in your moment of need? No coincidences, my friend, that’s for sure!

      I guess for me you said exactly what I was somewhat innocently thinking… it would disappear because I am sober. No such luck, but hearing stories such as these makes me realize I am not alone, so thanks so much!


  6. When I read this, I could feel how tight and tense the room must have felt. I really don’t like sleeping at other’s houses. I also think of NYC and the massive crowds and hundreds of tiny decisions one must constantly make while there. Stress. The city has always felt overwhelming to me, though I love its excitement.

    When I sleep poorly, the way I feel the next morning is similar to a mild hangover. I feel jittery, unfocused, anxious, sometimes even a little sick to my stomach. It’s caused by not getting enough sleep and triggers \side effects that mimic what I felt when I drank. I. Hate. It. I know there are things I could try to sleep better. I could get back to regular exercise, I could eat better, I could not pop out of bed at the crack of dawn. Maybe I could actually try one of these things?

    I love how you calmed yourself that night. I loved this line in particular: “I feel anxious, and I feel anxious that I feel anxious”. I recall hearing once that the panic one feels during an anxiety attack creates more panic. You stayed present in your body and it seemed to work for you. I keep thinking about giving meditation another go, and this description reminded me of it.


    • Yes, meditation, I am actually giving that process another go, I’m sure I will have some amusing post about it at some point, but I’m still way too new to the process for it to have any meaningful effect.

      And, yes, I was out of sorts the next morning, but, again, thankfully I can talk to both my friend and my husband about it, and soon enough we were laughing (and eating, those were the two primary activities of the weekend) again.

      Thanks for the comment, and the postcard 🙂 I will be sending pictures very soon!


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