I really dislike the C word. Don’t get me wrong I can see it certainly has its place. But boy does it get terribly overused.
My concern comes from the way we throw it around without due consideration of its consequence and the damage it does. Particularly the role that plays in health.
The word I am of course talking about is comparison.
Comparison is something that gets spoken of a lot in coaching circles. I think all of us inherently know that there is a limit to healthy levels of comparison, but it comes so naturally to humans that it is hard, if not impossible to completely release ourselves from it. It is a tool we use to make decisions and judgements countless times a day. The most basic way of measuring our world and separating the interactions we have with it. Comparison isn’t always a bad thing, not at all. Especially when we do it in a mindful way with positive intention. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case.
What I don’t think gets spoken about enough is the way we use comparison in health. Think about it, the essence of our health system and the way and even reason we diagnose ill health is comparing what we are experiencing to a measure considered normal. From the moment we are treated for any ailment it is because something is not what we compare to normal – ours or someone else’s. In health comparison forms such a basis for how we work and approach care that it can be easy to forget the point at which it stops being useful.
In a clinical setting I can absolutely see the need and value of comparison for diagnosis and allowing patients to understand the extent of the problem they are facing. It’s a tool and a necessary one at that. However, for patients it is the understatement of the year to say our health interactions don’t disappear the moment we walk out the hospital door. And neither does our comparative mindset.
We compare ourselves to healthy people, we compare ourselves to people with different diagnosis’s and we even compare ourselves to others with the same condition as us, hoping it will somehow improve our own prognosis or experience. And let’s not even start on the way the broader community compares us. Comparison has never been easier than it is today as patients and carers increasingly connect online. When we are using comparison outside the clinical setting, the intention behind it is quite different.
“You’re lucky you are not as sick as they are.”
“At least you don’t have cancer”
“I am not as healthy as another patient I know”
“How many hospital admissions do you have per year?”
“What is your lung function?”
I remember when I became really unwell for the first time. Around the time I speak of here. At risk of sounding really old, Facebook was a relatively new concept that was seeing remarkable uptake and I had recently found online patient forums and Facebook groups.
My life was changing in ways I had never known before. I was scared, lost and desperate. I went online in pursuit of people who understood (because CF patients should not have face to face contact due to the risk of cross infection). What I found was pages and pages of discussions about every aspect of CF.
Amongst all the helpful information and beneficial community support (it certainly wasn’t all bad), there was one thing I failed to see. Essentially those interactions were enticing me to compare my experience to someone else’s and even if not intentionally, rank myself in a hierarchy of health.
In that context the unintentional act of comparison was closely connected to sneaky thoughts like
“I am not good enough”, “I need to do more”, “What am I doing wrong?” or even “At least my situation isn’t as bad as theirs”.
None of which value my own thoughts, feelings or experiences.
My comparative mindset presented two dangers: The first was that I was jumping to all types of assumptions and inferring that we all walk the similar (or same) health journeys with a projected outcome and variables which we are largely in control of, something which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Secondly, that numbers (and other people’s experiences) became more influential than my awareness of my own body and the role I played in my own care. Even if I could find the answers I wanted to see in others experience, it would hardly have changed my reality.
I feel like a bit of a broken record here but our health experiences are unique and diverse, just as they are in every other aspect of our life. When we compare we shrink our health down to just one element to base judgement upon, often leaving out some of the most critical factors and devaluing the process of being present in our current experience.
Comparison demands we make sense of our health experience through others instead of allowing ourselves to feel it for what it is to us.
In this process we open many opportunities to fill ourselves with guilt or failure or create unhealthy benchmarks that aren’t setting us up to pursue our best health or simply acknowledge when something is really shitty (without there needing a reason for it to be so).
Have you ever had the experience of someone with a different medical condition saying to you “You must find it silly that I am complaining about (insert particular medical ailment), it seems so insignificant to yours”. In just a few words they lessen the importance of their experience and their validity to feel it, despite that having little relevance to their reality.
In life there are no yard sticks, no way things should or won’t go. Those measurements and the way we hold them against one another is something we have constructed to justify our feelings and actions, when really we don’t need to.
I don’t think it is realistic to believe that we can go through life never making comparisons. However, I believe we could all benefit from becoming more mindful in our application of comparison in health and practice only getting involved with that mindset when it deeply serves us. In recognising what we are trying to achieve each time we make a health comparison – instead of doing it subconsciously without thought or consideration, we can change the intention behind it.
The experiences of others do not determine our success or failure. As much as numbers can tell us how we relate to someone else, they can not tell us how we feel within ourselves. I know which is the most important to me.
When we see health in terms of numbers and comparisons, we diminish our power to connect (without bias) to our unique experiences and feelings. Not matter how much we compare ourselves it won’t change our reality but it can change our perception – generally not in a positive way. When instead we recognise the importance of our own experience as the number one indicator, we reclaim our power to pursue our healthiest self.
Connection after all, is a far more helpful C-word.