When life throws you for a loop, and your circumstances today look bleaker than time before a precipitating event, you may find yourself stuck in a circular comparison trap. Whether I'm talking to a business owner who is suddenly having difficulty attracting new clients, or an entrepreneur who has been significantly impacted by a health set back, their ability to rebuild and restore is affected by the degree to which they continue to compare their present circumstances to a preferred past.
Like the young athlete who is injured and can no longer play, the greatest obstacle to healing and moving on is his or her lingering insistence that life beyond the game is meaningless. Through repeated telling of your “before and after story” you may inadvertently romanticize the past, giving it more positive qualities than it actually deserves. We also see this happen to people several years after a divorce or a breakup. What they didn’t particularly like about their spouse moves to the background, while the more romantic, enjoyable times seem to expand. This is known as selective memory or selective amnesia. (1)
Key sentences signifying you are stuck in the comparison trap start with such openings as:
- We used to…
- (S)he used to…
- I used to…
- It used to…
- They used to…
Love the Past, Honor the Past
In order to move forward, you have to find a way to release the past, to see it for what it was, and let it be. To do this, I offer you the following set of questions. Take your comparison story out for one last spin, this time with an intention to make conscious what has been automatic, and to uncover any fairy tale qualities that may be lurking beneath. Instead of simply accepting, judging and comparing the present to the past without discernment, you are going to first observe, and second, release.
When you compare your life today with your life before your set back, what do you say to yourself or to others? (Answer only the questions that are relevant.)
- What were you like before "the event?"
- How were things better than they are today?
- What do you miss the most?
- What were your relationships like? (Consider family, friends, colleagues)
- How would you describe your lifestyle before you became ill, or before the downturn, or before whatever line in the sand you’ve drawn? How do you describe it now?
- What other comparisons have you been making that I’ve not covered in the questions above? Write about those.
After you answer the questions above, review them one more time if you’d like, then take a break. Do something that feels really good. Take a walk, call a good friend, watch one of your favorite TV shows, or take a nap. When you’re ready, come back and continue on.
Dismantling the Comparison Trap
In order to more easily move forward into a new future, it helps to look back with a fresh perspective. Review your responses to the questions above. For each response ask the following:
- Was there an unhealthy aspect to the situation you described?
- Was there a cost associated with the “better” life that you have overlooked or omitted?
- Are you leaving out some aspect of your story of life before the precipitating event that would offer a more complete view of the past?
Learn from the Past, Let Go of the Past
Here’s what a Realtor coming back after a year of cancer treatments said about how he approached business life before, and how he sees things now:
I’m optimistic and confident I can get it back to an acceptable level of production, but not by doing it the same way or with the same mindset as in the past. I think some of the motivations that drove me to the business were not healthy motivations, things I had to prove to myself, things that made whatever success I did achieve came with a high price. I was always pushing and aware of what I ought to be doing, [feeling] guilty about what I wasn’t doing.
When you have a more complete picture of the past you may start to see the gifts in your current situation. From this place, it is just a little easier for move forward.
(1) Selective Memory and Selective Amnesia is the use of memory, or a lack of memory, which is selective to the point of reinforcing a bias, belief or desired outcome. (Source: http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/SelectiveAmnesia.html)