Why Making Comparisons is Bad for Addiction Recovery

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It’s normal to feel a bit disoriented when you enter treatment for the first time or enter a specific program for the first time. The way most people respond to this kind of uncertainty is to start looking around at what others are doing. As a social species, we are strongly influenced by the opinions of others. We don’t want to be thought of as odd, lazy, weak, unfriendly, or any number of other essentially relative adjectives. It’s also normal to enter treatment feeling anxious. After all, treatment is a big commitment of time, money, and effort and a lot depends on the outcome. There are families anxiously waiting to see how their loved ones will do, whether they may have finally reached a turning point. With so much at stake, we look for signs to see how well we might be doing and unfortunately, many people assess their progress by comparing themselves to others. Making these kinds of comparisons in treatment and recovery is not only misleading but ultimately counterproductive. Here’s why.

Comparisons are bad for your mental health.

There have been many studies showing that social comparisons are bad for your mental health. One study found that people who made more frequent social comparisons had many negative mental health outcomes, including more feelings of guilt, envy, defensiveness, and regret. They were also more likely to lie, blame others, and have unmet cravings. [https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-12888-004] Much of the research on social media and mental health has found that social media use increases feelings of depression and isolation and several studies have found that this increased risk of depression is likely a result of social comparison. 

One study [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S174014451730517X#!] found that women who were asked to engage on social media with peers who they judged as more attractive than themselves–perhaps predictably–reported lower self-esteem. However, another study [https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701] found that people who made frequent comparisons on social media felt more depressed whether they judged themselves as better or worse off than the people they compared themselves too. Yet another study [https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a731/22d8d46b4dc71441219954ccc5228d5dbc69.pdf] found that social comparison, but not total time spent on social media, correlated with depressive symptoms. This suggests that it’s the act of comparison or judgment rather than failing to measure up that makes us feel bad.

This research is especially important for people recovering from addiction because there is significant overlap between depression and substance use disorders. People often develop substance use disorders as a way of coping with the symptoms of depression. Sometimes it goes the other way; addiction leads to feelings of shame and hopelessness, which can turn into depression. It’s also common for people recovering from addiction to experience post-acute-withdrawal syndrome during their first year. This is often described as emotional numbness or depression. In short, anything you can do to reduce your risk of depressive symptoms can only help your recovery from addiction.

Comparisons are almost completely meaningless.

Another major reason to avoid making comparisons in addiction recovery is that comparisons are mostly meaningless. Addiction and recovery are complex and personal and no two people will have exactly the same experiences. Everyone enters treatment with a different personal history and a different addiction history. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. There’s no way to meaningfully compare two people in recovery. 

What’s more, you never know what someone else is really going through. You mostly only know what other people let you know. This is especially true of recovery, where so much happens inside your own head. Someone who appears to be making fast progress and generally have it together may secretly feel like she’s struggling, falling behind, or on the verge of collapse, while someone who appears to be a complete mess is actually more willing to be vulnerable and rely on social support to get her through rough times. Most importantly, neither the person who seems to have it together or the person who is a complete mess has any influence over how well you will do in recovery.

Recovery is not a race.

There’s no prize for being the first person to graduate from a program. What milestones there are in recovery tend to be chunks of time. For example, your risk of relapse usually falls significantly after your first year sober, then again at five years sober. However, everyone takes exactly the same amount of time to reach these milestones. If someone accomplishes something you would like to accomplish, it doesn’t take anything away from you. In fact, it might help you.

Cooperation matters more than competition.

A competitive mindset can undermine what’s really important in addiction recovery: cooperation. Social support is one of the best predictors of a successful recovery and having the attitude that you’re competing against everyone else undermines that sense of mutual support. Addiction recovery is a positive-sum game, which means that all participants do better by working together. When someone in your program or at your 12-step meeting succeeds, it shows that you can succeed too. It makes good possibilities seem more real.

Only compare yourself to where you were yesterday.

There is only one kind of comparison that is meaningful: comparing yourself to you from yesterday. Every day in recovery is up and down, especially in the beginning, but you can always try to do a little better than you did the day before. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it could be trying to be a little kinder to yourself or a little better listener. These small improvements accumulate over time and will eventually lead to a strong recovery.

Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.

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