Much of our unhappiness comes from comparing ourselves to where we think we should be, or where others are, rather than seeing what is positive about our own reality. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, we should be focusing on ourselves and ploughing our unique furrow.
As an addiction therapist, one of the things I regularly hear from clients who are newly sober is that they feel like they are behind everyone else when it comes to where they "should be" in life. Having "wasted years", as they see it, stuck in a negative lifestyle, they feel like their peers have pulled ahead of them and have their "stuff" all sorted out.
Or they look at celebrities splashed across the media and envy the good fortune they seem to have, imagining that life is somehow easier for them, with their fame, money and fancy possessions. But we can never know what challenges people face behind closed doors, or in the confines of their own mind. You can never know the truth of anyone else's experience; and these pointless comparisons only cause us pain.
The thing about being human is that each life represents a unique journey; there really isn't a finishing line until we die, so you can't be "behind" everyone else. We all have our own individual roads to follow. Yours will not be the same as Madonna's or your friends, colleagues and neighbours; it will be yours alone.
Having come from a dark and difficult place myself, I can truly say that I have learnt a lot more in my ten years of addiction and subsequent recovery than I might have in a decade of living a regular life. I learnt what I needed to know, and I have grown exponentially as a result.
That doesn't mean that a more normal life wouldn't have been positive and taught me things as well; all it means is that I can reflect on and appreciate my experiences for what they have given me. And that is the most beneficial thing to do, because after all, it is my reality and I can't change it.
People often find it hard to focus on the positive things that a difficult life may have given them, seeing only the black, grey and gloom. But there are always positives, if only we choose to acknowledge them.
In my latest book, The Happy Addict, I actually invite the reader to list all the positive qualities their addiction gave them. For example, I know I would not be half as empathetic, tolerant or open-minded if I hadn't experienced the pain of mental health problems and addiction.
My battle for recovery has taught me to ask for help when I need it, to reach out to others who need help, and to never give up. It has taught me the value of fellowship, sharing and what really matters in life. And it ain't what Mr and Mrs Jones next door are doing.
If you find yourself in 'compare and despair' mode, here are some simple steps you can use to save yourself from sadness:
- Live in reality: We can all have fantasies about how everyone else's lives may be much better than ours - but that's all they are, fantasies. All we know for sure is our own experience, so focus on that alone.
- Practice gratitude: Become grateful for what your unique life has given you. What have you learnt, even through adversity? How have you grown? Rather than looking at what you believe you're lacking, focus on all the great stuff you do have.
- Let go of "shoulds": There is no such thing as what everybody "should" be like, or what we "should" be doing. Focus on yourself as an individual, what you want to do, where you want to go and how you will get there.
- Stop wishing: Wishful thinking is a complete waste of energy. Instead of wishing you were someone else, or somewhere else, use all your energy to improve your life and move forward.
- Enjoy the ride: Look at how far you have come through life, and rather than despairing at how far you still have to go, be glad of the opportunities you have to make things even better, and the pleasure and pride you will get from taking the right steps. To quote Richard Bach "Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you're alive it isn't." Establish your unique path and follow it with all your heart..