The Comparison Trap . . . and getting out of it

Jun 29, 2017

I recently received this question from a woman I know:

when the grass seems greener on the other side

“I’d like some help dealing with the trap of comparing. I’ve been struggling under the weight of house envy. A friend has a new home with garden attached, and the arrival of summer weather threatens to steal all my usual joy in the season. I guess it sounds absolutely ridiculous and trivial, but it’s so real in its pain and ugliness, and I’ve got to face it somehow.”

My initial reactions were:

  1. This is not at all ridiculous and trivial – there’s something so very important going on for this woman.
  2. I celebrate her honesty and realization that it’s time to “deal with,” “face the pain.”
  3. Her honesty and self-awareness impress me, and I decided to reply with some guidance about further self-connection by tapping into her underlying longings, finding creative ways to fulfill them, and exploring any needed mourning.
The Comparison Trap

I’d had my share of “the grass is definitely greener on the other side.” In fact, when I first moved to the Netherlands, I was also having “house envy.” Anytime I found myself in one of the wealthy villages near the coast, I compared my tiny townhouse and lack of a decent yard with the free-standing glorious homes and feel miserable.

Comparing is indeed a trap. It’s a place of right or wrong, better or worse. A painful, no-win situation, really. I had never stopped to think about this until one of my first Nonviolent Communication trainings when I learned about the main ways language can be alienating or bring distance between humans. Next to judging, blaming and demanding, comparing makes it in the top four. Easy enough for me to understand . . . each time I go into comparison mode, I’m usually on the “worse” or “wrong” side of the fence.

Here’s how NVC taught me to deal with my comparison traps:

Notice my comparison thoughts

I started by pinpointing what triggered my suffering: When I would see large stand-alone houses with lushy, green yards, I would think things like, “It’s not fair. If I still lived in North Carolina, I could also afford to have that.”

See the facts

Distinguish reality from my interpretation of reality: In fact, I made the very conscious choice to move to the Netherlands, knowing full well that housing is much more expensive here and that I would be giving up some things and gaining many others.

Embrace my feelings

When I have the thought . . . “It’s not fair,” I am very unhappy, believing my interpretation of reality.

When I am with the facts . . . I feel quite satisfied with my choice . . . the pros of living here far outweigh the cons for me and my family. I even feel very alive when I think of all that I gained!

Discover my longings (are my needs being met?)

So many of my needs are being met while living in the Netherlands, like:  more choice (transportation), more freedom (for my kids and therefore us parents, too), support for health, more safety and other means of social security.

A big need that in the beginning was not yet being met was:  spaciousness.

Creatively meet my needs (do I have any requests of myself?)

First I pondered what spaciousness really meant for me. It wasn’t at all about a big house for me, because they mean more cleaning, which I don’t enjoy (nor wish to pay someone else to do). It’s actually more about an inner experience. How/when do I experience spaciousness? Being in nature for sure. Having my own garden. Finding inner peace and calm even when things are chaotic around me. So I found myself a garden plot to rent. I followed more NVC trainings and a mindfulness course, and now I have a “meditation buddy.”

What if the pain remains?

It occurred to me that my example might not be completely satisfying or helpful enough as a response to the question I received. Sometimes it really seems like it is very much about the house! In NVC, we call this “mourning a favorite strategy.” For example, in this case a large home could be the best known and FAVORITE strategy for meeting a need like spaciousness. When there is a lack of creativity about other ways this need can be met, the loss (or lack) of the house is painful.

Anytime there is loss, the need for mourning can arrive. I didn’t know how to mourn until I started paying attention to the fact that I experience loss, change, unmet needs throughout my each and every day. So my next step was to really look at what mourning means for ME. Now I take regular time for expressing my sadness and/or anger. I help myself or ask an NVC friend of mine to help me see my underlying longings. When I can be with them (and just them, detached from any favorite strategies), THEN I can tap into some creative energy . . . find doable ways to meet my needs and enjoy more fulfillment.

Do you notice your (little to big) losses throughout each day? Do you take the needed time to mourn them so that you can move on toward acceptance and completion? We aren’t taught this in our society, yet it brings so much. I hope you start noticing and consider ways in which you can mourn. And if it’s a favorite strategy you mourn, then I hope you discover your underlying longing, so that you can start to find other ways to meet it!

Cara Crisler
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