Comparison between people, aptitudes, skills, etc is a concept that most of us would be familiar with. Of late, I’ve been spending time assessing how the ongoing comparison between the old and new me since encephalitis and acquired brain injury may be affecting my overall happiness and recovery.
The changes in lifestyle, in physical and cognitive abilities and in energy levels has been pretty drastic and to be perfectly honest quite a bumpy ride too. Comparison is no longer between what others can achieve versus where I stand, but between where I used to sit versus what my new reality allows for now. On more than one occasion, this has been really disheartening. It has affected all spheres of my life and comparison reached an all time high on a personal, professional and social level.
Has comparison between and old me and new me been a thief of joy? Absolutely.
As I’m taking a step back to write this blog, I’m thinking about some of the words that I used, about comparisons that I have made between the old and new me, and I can see clear as day how so many of those comparisons would have been harmful. I can see how they would have detracted me from achieving a state of happiness. I can say in all honesty that comparison between the old and new me has triggered several negative thoughts.
Attending social events following a brain injury is not an easy undertaking and I have avoided a fair share of them over the years. One would think that by not attending an event that there would be less ground for comparison, but I found that to be quite the opposite. In fact, I found it has heightened social comparison.
FOMO is a real thing and digital technologies do not let you get away with much unseen unfortunately. It has often made me aware of the immense gap between the number & type of event that I can manage compared to everyone else. When I have put myself out there, it’s often highlighted my newly acquired challenges and the ways in which I have adapt in order to survive the simplest of gathering. Those few examples describe really well how social comparison may have had a negative impact on my overall recovery and wellbeing.
In the early days of recovery I was extremely lucky to have the support of a stellar employer. They were amazing! We settled on a return to work schedule that catered for my health challenges and we amended the plan as recovery went on. However, limited time in the office and reduced cognitive abilities meant that in order to see some projects come to fruition, some tasks and responsibilities had to be dispatched amongst other colleagues. I understood the reasoning for this, but it felt unfair. It felt unfair that a brain inflammation and its resulting brain injury robbed me of some of my professional aspirations. It highlighted, once again, some of my shortfalls. I started perceiving injustice in my professional life and the culprit was for the most part the new me and its ongoing limitations. I remember all too well comparing my cognitive aptitudes, productivity and the state of my executive functioning between the old and new me…and for the most part, I did not like the state of it one bit!
With managing limitations left and right and learning to live life as the new me, it didn’t take long for the negative to outweigh the positive between the old and new me. I was more times than not pretty disappointed with the massively scaled down version of the old me. I’ll go as far as saying that at times, I hated this new me. Unsurprisingly, this sort of internal dialogue and belief lead me to think that I was failing all the times. It felt as though I was falling short on so many fronts. Looking back, I realise how harsh and unkind I was to this new version of me which was in reality working harder than ever.
How could the reflection of the person in the mirror be the same yet FEEL so different? Comparison was truly the thief of joy but at the centre of it all were two different versions of ME that I could simply not reconcile.
As I’m reading and reviewing this blog , I so wish that I could have told that person in the mirror something - ANYTHING - to have her believe that things will be ok in the end. That rediscovering and healing myself will happen, but that it will take time and occur in many shapes and sizes. The thing is, I’m not sure that I would have believed then what I know now anyway.
If you are stuck in this exact phase of your recovery, I won’t sit here pretending that getting to know and appreciate the new you will be easy. I get you, I understand the frustrations, I understand the complexity of the challenges that you are faced with and all their associated emotions. I truly feel for you and above all, I wish I had a magic wand to fast track this process ten-fold. I think it’s a journey and that at some stage we come to realise that we have to trust the process.
Tips to manage comparisons
Below are a few ideas that I’ve come across in an article from Psychology Today* that I’m thinking may help you manage some of the harmful comparisons between the old and new version of yourself following brain injury:
1. Recognize that you’re likely using an unrealistic target when evaluating yourself and adjust accordingly.
2. Consider what you’re trying to achieve when making a comparison.
3. If comparisons have you feeling down, spend some time thinking about positives: how much a skill has improved over time, how much worse a situation could be than it is in reality, or others who may see you as a role model right now.
We have to remember that comparisons can go both ways. Finding ways to use comparisons in a positive way can actually be helpful. Again, I’m not saying that it’s easy, but with the right mindset, we can gradually start turning things around.
Final words on comparison
So next time when I ask myself if comparison between and old me and new me has been a thief of joy, I think I’ll tweak my answer in the following way…Yes of some of my joys, but time has been my ally. As the new me started finding its place and purpose, I discovered so much about myself and this definitely translated into growth that would have never come about otherwise. Trust that somewhere along the way, you will start embracing the new you and that comparisons between the old and new you will fade away.