By Amy Rakowczyk
When we matched for residency, our program brought us close to some good friends we have known since college. These are friends we have shared deep, heart-filled conversations with over the years, and they are like family to us. We are so similar to them in many ways, including our ages and the ages of our kids. It had been many years since we had seen them in person, and we were very excited to catch up.
However, at that first reunion my spouse and I were a bit surprised with what we saw. Our lives used to look very comparable to our friends, but times had now changed and our external lives looked quite different. While we felt like our own lifestyle was still in a similar place to our college days, our friends had dramatically moved up in financial and social status.
We are continuing to pinch pennies and are renting an apartment (yet again), while in comparison, our friends now live in one of the richest areas of town in a large custom home. They drive nice cars, go on regular vacations, have regular outings and parties, and send their kids to numerous extra-curricular activities and private school. They seem by appearances to “have it all.”
My spouse and I weren’t sure what to think. “Wow,” was first, then, “Is this what life might be like for us some day, or if we hadn’t have chosen medicine?” Followed by, “Is this even the type of life we want for ourselves and our family?”
We returned to our cozy 900-square foot apartment after a visit with them feeling conflicted. While joyous after reconnecting with our friends, we also couldn’t help feeling a bit sad and discouraged. Even with all the years of hard work and sacrifice already put in, we are now in our mid 30’s still scrounging for money and waiting to start living the kind of life we really wanted. We don’t necessarily want all the things our friends have, but we do want the income and freedom to make our own lifestyle dreams come to true.
My spouse and I both felt frustrated on the professional side of things as well. It’s challenging to repeatedly feel like “the new guy/girl” after so many years in training. As the medical spouse, I’ve had to move jobs so many times that I feel I’ve never gotten the chance to really develop in my chosen field. I’m always starting over. Seeing other people your age advancing into more senior positions, while you still feel on the bottom rung, is disheartening.
Comparison, comparison, comparison!
This game is so easy to fall into. Most of the time it’s so instinctual that we don’t even realize we are comparing ourselves and our lives so much with other people. It’s part of our nature as human beings and a huge part of our culture.
Comparison and “wanting more” has infected our culture so thoroughly because a substantial portion of the US economy is built around convincing us that we need more things in order to be happy. We have constantly received this message since birth. Marketers point out a lack or something we don’t like and then they provide the solution: “If you just had this next thing or looked like this other person, you’d be really happy!” We know from experience that this is not true; it’s nonsense!
Your happiness depends on nothing more than what you choose to spend your time thinking about. We know how unhealthy and unhelpful comparison is and that we don’t need it. We know that new things don’t make us truly, deeply happy. Comparison might provide some motivation in the short term, but that only lasts until you find something else you think you want or should have. It’s an endless cycle.
But here’s the good news! You absolutely can stop this cycle and avoid the comparison game. Here’s the truth about comparison: it stems from the feeling of unfairness or desire to have something you feel is unattainable for you.
Reality is distorted when you start building up something in your mind. The thing you want will start to look much greater or better than it really is, which means that it will never truly be what you’ve imagined it to be, or bring you the happiness or peace you think it will. Simultaneously, if you’re starting to view what you actually do have as something much less/worse than what it is, you’ll create greater frustration and unhappiness for yourself. It’s just a mind game!
It’s also important to point out that there is a difference between unhealthy comparison and feeling inspired by someone. If there is someone you look up to as a model for setting your own goals or crafting your own dreams, that’s a gift and can be very instrumental in helping you challenge yourself to make your big dreams come true. One way to distinguish between the two is to check whether the comparison thought makes you feel inspired and motivated, or depressed and deflated. You want to be inspired!
So, let’s free ourselves from this unhealthy and unhelpful comparison game! Here’s how you can start.
What’s going well in your life right now?
When we continuously look to others seeking validation for ourselves and our lives, we are 100% going to be disappointed. Only YOU can provide contentment with your situation. Look around you and take note of all the things that are going well for you.
Yes, you probably don’t have everything you want and aren’t living in your ideal situation at this moment, but there must be some things that are good, actually really good, in your life. Turn your attention to that instead of wallowing in what you don’t have. The practice of gratitude has been researched and backed by neuroscience. Feeling grateful makes you feel happier!
At a yoga retreat I once attended, we were instructed to list ten things we were grateful for before going to bed each night. It had to be things that really stirred the feeling of gratitude in our hearts. As part of this, we were encouraged to notice the simple things and savor them, like the feeling of resting in a warm comfortable bed or the smell of coffee in the morning. Practicing appreciation of these things in life moment-by-moment can help anchor us when we feel like we are being pulled by envy. Is there something you can savor in this moment?
What do YOU actually want?
Focus on yourself for a moment, not those around you. What do YOU really want to have in your life? What do you really like and enjoy? Not what you think you are supposed to like, what you think others would like, or what you see others around you having. Turn your attention inward to your own preferences, hopes and dreams. This will help the comparison melt away. There’s no need to compare when you’re focused on your own life, not someone else’s. Now, you might not have those things you’re wanting at this stage of life, but can you think of ways to incorporate some things? Maybe not the material things, but the relationships, connections, and wellness that you’re working toward? For more on this, check out this previous article, “Living In The Unknown.”
Notice it to avoid it.
Once you catch yourself in the the act of comparing once or twice, you can start being more and more aware of this tendency and when it happens. Do you start comparing when you’re around a certain person or situation? Identify those and prepare yourself mentally before meeting that person or waltzing into that room. Think through talking with that person or being in that environment, anticipating how you might feel. What are you going to try this time? Would using a catch phrase help? Something like, “I’m comparing myself to X right now. I’m going to move my attention to something enjoyable in this very moment.” Then savor that drink in your hand, or some natural beauty surrounding you.
Wish them well.
Whomever you catch yourself comparing situations with, pause and mentally send them well wishes. Remember they are a person, just like you, and don’t have it all together like it may appear. We all have challenges and struggles. We all have things we wish were different. You may not know what their thing is, but don’t put them on a pedestal assuming they’re “perfect” (which nobody is anyway).
Wish them happiness and peace in their situation. Feel happiness for them in what they have in their lives, for what they’ve built, worked hard for, and made sacrifices for. Then, wish the same for yourself.
You, fellow medical spouse, deserve to be acknowledged for how hard you’ve worked and all the sacrifices you’ve made. You are making the best of your situation and riding this medical roller coaster with grit and grace. May you remain true to yourself on this journey, feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplished and savor the good available to you now. The best is yet to come and you deserve all the wonderful things that are coming your way!
About the Author
Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and two young daughters. She enjoys helping other spouses navigate the world of medicine and actively participates in support groups and activities. Her husband is a Family Medicine resident at UTMB Galveston and did his medical training at The Ohio State University.