The older I get, the more I value time and my emotional well-being. There is so much I want to do in life and I hate when I waste my time and my mental energy on unproductive crap. And these three behaviors are monsters in terms of physical and emotional health. And darn it, we all do it! Women do it more than men, because we are generally better at multitasking (even though in this case, I am talking about multitasking dumb thoughts) and men are generally better at distracting themselves. I am talking about COR: Comparison, Overthinking, and Rumination. This is a 10-minute read, or a 40-minute therapeutic experience if you include the 3 videos I’m recommending.
Let’s take a look and then let me know if any of these sound familiar.
At first sight, comparison is a natural and normal process. It’s actually a survival mechanism. It’s built in our system. At an animalistic level, any time we are next to another human being, our sensory system activates to assess him or her, how we measure up, and the level of threat to our well-being.
Are we safe around this person?
If the answer is NO, we flipping run!!
If the answer is YES, we stick around and we go to the next question.
How do we feel about this person?
If the answer is NEGATIVE, we move away and avoid further contact if we can.
If the answer is POSITIVE, we are naturally drawn toward that person; we want to be around more, we want to know about them, we want to engage more. Our natural curiosity kicks in.
The more we hang out, the more we assess and subconsciously compare.
What do they have that we like? We want that too!
It makes us feel good when we are in their presence; we want to have the same! We make appraisals of beauty, strength, wealth, quality of relationship, parenting skills, cooking abilities, volunteering efforts, church attendance, coffee intake; you name, humans do it!
Some level of comparison is fantastic! It motivates us to do better, to be more creative, to work out harder, to save more money, to be more loving, to be more patient. Yes, we all have things we can improve upon.
But these appraisals are all relative! As good as all of these sound, too much comparison or unrealistic comparison is a major stress trigger. WHY? Because most of the time, we are not comparing apples to apples! We are usually comparing apples to blueberries to bananas and we don’t really know it because we don’t have a full picture.
We all work at a different pace, have different life circumstances, different strengths, and different weaknesses. We have a different genetic material, different emotional baggage, and different experiences. We often fall in the trap of comparing ourselves with someone else’s perfect image on social media and make it our goal to match them. We live in an extremely fast paced world that constantly and subconsciously prompts us to want more and get more in a shorter period of time. And when we don’t get there as fast as we decide we should (since we have the patience of a butterfly, the usual expected turnaround is one week), we start feeling sadness, doubt, confusion, disappointment, anxiety and a variety of other ill feelings. And this is when comparison turns from a positive behavior into an unproductive and unhealthy one
Learn the difference between productive and unproductive comparison! For example, I am not very good at singing. This statement is not a sign of low-esteem; it’s a sign of self-awareness. Could I take some coaching and work really hard at it to become better? Absolutely! Will I ever become the next Beyoncé? Absolutely not! Now, I’m a decent writer. I wrote two self-help books, I write this blog, and in general I do fairly well with written communication. Should I compare myself with Brené Brown? It’s probably premature, but with additional work at my craft, it’s a more realistic possibility, and definitely a productive comparison.
Refocus on yourself! You don’t need to compare yourself to 20 other people all the time. Be a student of self-awareness. Think in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Maximize on your strengths and manage your weaknesses. Don’t compare yourself to others, but DO compare your performance today to your performance yesterday or to the one a month ago, or 5 years ago. Are you better today than you were yesterday?
Stop chasing shiny objects! Re-prioritize and simplify your life! Pick one or two and focus! It’s like going on a trip: pick your destination, figure out your roadmap on how to get there, and then stay in your lane. Stay in your lane! Constantly looking at the person in the next lane will other slow you down or cause you to crash the car.
Watch this video! I love Marie Forleo’s spirit and her fun, well-crafted videos. This 10-minute video is on how to stop comparison from destroying your business and happiness.
There are three types of people; the ones that under-think, the ones that over-think, and the ones that are content with “just good enough.” Like anything else in life, living at the extreme ends of any continuum is not the best, nor the most productive choice. Under-thinkers don’t bother with the details and may miss important data that would have changed the decision and led to a different outcome. They are usually more optimistic, even naïve sometime and often have the best-case scenario in mind. “Ignorance is bliss” as we often hear, may apply to the under-thinkers. From a mental health perspective, this group lives in the no-stress zone, as they happily go with the flow, indifferent of their choices and outcomes. They may miss many opportunities, but generally they are ok with that; or if they are not, they generally blame it on other people or just on life.
Conversely, the over-thinkers keep thinking about things, anything and everything, every detail and every nuance. They wear themselves out, they take a break, and then they think some more. And they generally gravitate towards the worst-case scenario more than the positive one. This is generally where anxious people live, in the “what if?” land. This is a perfect fit for insurance actuaries and other risk management jobs, but not so much for an overall life style.
Not only that you could always be stuck and not able to make a decision, but you can also kill the fun and joy out of anything. For example, take the idea of planning your family’s dream vacation. As you go through the itinerary and try to plan for the big things like hotel and transportation, some meal planning and some sightseeing. If you stopped here, everything would most likely be great, but over-thinkers don’t stop here. They start taking each day and each hour apart, think of what could go wrong, and try to set up contingency plans for everything: what if the weather is too hot, or too cold? Or if the kids get sick? Or hurt? What if the rental car breaks down? What if the museum is closed or too busy? The next thing you know they are so worried and stressed out, that this trip could turn out to be a nightmare before you even left the driveway.
Pick 3 big areas of anxiety, come up with concrete solutions for each one of them, and move on! For example, in the travel example (which I am somewhat familiar with), I would pick flights, having a reliable car, and enough kids’ entertainment as my top big worries. I would focus my efforts on solutions (not just thoughts) and as soon as they are crossed off-the list, I am done thinking about it.
Put time limits to your thinking about it! If you absolutely cannot just be done thinking about it, allow yourself to think about it for a limited time. For example, I will put the timer on for 15 minutes, during which time, that’s all you are supposed to think about. Just think about your “what if” scenarios and nothing else. Chances are that when you are forced to think about a subject and that subject only, you’ll get bored and want to move on.
Become an expert at relaxation techniques! When you have an anxiety disorder (which by the way, many people do), this is a must! It’s like brushing your teeth. Here is a video to get you started. Lay down on the floor, do some light stretching, and listen to this 10-minute video, Guided Meditation to Ease Anxiety, Worry, Overthinking & Urgency.
In animal biology, rumination is the process by which the cow regurgitates previously consumed feed and masticates it a second time. Keep that visual in mind, and step over to the field of psychology, and rumination is simply repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion. The focus is on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions. I see this often in individuals with depression, anxiety, or relationship issues. Ruminating is worsened by another difficulty, the inability to distance from the problem for enough time to flexibly generate solutions. Brain chemistry makes it hard to switch to another perspective to find the way out of problems, so rumination intensifies.
Rumination is also an example of the Zeigarnik Effect, which suggests that individuals are more likely to remember information from unfinished tasks than from finished tasks. In plain English, this means the brain needs closure in order to move on, otherwise it keeps going in circles. This is a great mechanism for finding your keys, but not very productive post-breakup.
We don’t even have to make it a break-up. One example could be a simple fight with your significant other. You replay the fight over and over and add some made up scenarios that make up a whole movie in your head, that may not be based in reality any longer and it’s very emotionally intense, highly-charged, causing loss of sleep and loss of appetite, and many tears.
Imagine this super simple scenario: a fight over not wanting to go out to a party. His reason: he’s tired and doesn’t feel like socializing with your friends or anyone else as a matter of fact. You, however are up for a party and you want him to go with you.
Many words are exchanged and some of them may put you both in the nasty box.
You keep going for a while; you forgot what the heck you started fighting about, but you have to keep it going.
You leave the house; you are in the car, and you start re-playing the conversations in your head. You start ruminating.
This means you replay the exchanges, just like an herbivore that chews the food all over again (yes, I need you to have that visual in mind as a strong deterrent for next time).
What did he mean?
Why did he say that?
I should have got him with this instead.
Does he have someone else?
Is he trying to get me to leave him?
He doesn’t love me.
I’m going to show him and leave him first.
When everything calms down, you realize he really was just tired and did not feel like going out, nothing more. But, you’ve already wasted hours or days ruminating and “re-chewing” blurry conversations, and making yourself sick!
Put yourself in time out and give yourself some space! Rumination might prevent you from solving the problem or from moving on if you do not have a solution at the moment. Try to unhook problems from each other to see if you have an actual problem you can solve or just a worry to eliminate.
Stop thinking about the negatives! Try to activate memories of times when everything worked out okay. These might be hard to remember, but you can deliberately decide to recall the positives, those specific times when things worked out even though you had been afraid.
Find something productive to distract yourself with! If you have too much time to ruminate about what your partner is or is not doing, you just have too much time on your hands! Find something useful to do! Not only will it distract you and get you out of a disastrous down spiral, it will also make you feel like you are not wasting your life on someone who, in the moment, may not appreciate you the way you deserve it. So why would you give them even more of your precious time and mental energy? Find something that will build you up. It could be work, a hobby, or even a new entrepreneurial adventure. Turn that anxiety and restless times into building blocks for something that you are passionate about.
Finally, take a look at this 10-minute Ted Talk with social psychologist, Alison Ledgerwood about why we get stuck in the negatives and how to get unstuck.
And, now, I would love to hear from you! Do any of these happen to you? Do they happen often? And what have you found to be the most successful solutions? Comment below and let me and others know. And of course, if you know a friend with similar experiences, I would be so happy if you shared this post to help them out as well.
ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a licensed psychologist with experience and interest in communication, relationships, stress and anxiety management, executive coaching and entrepreneurship. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage and My Spouse is Different Than Me: How to Mediate Irreconcilable Differences and Grow in Your Marriage. For more information, join her at ruxandralemay.com, a website for people who hate therapy, but still need it!