Is Comparison the Thief of Joy or a Really Great DBT Skill?

Is Comparison the Thief of Joy or a Really Great DBT Skill?

As a DBT therapist who leads three skills groups at Hartstein Psychological in addition to seeing individual clients, I have taught the Distress Tolerance ACCEPTS skills too many times to count throughout my career and have used them even more in my own life (they work!).

ACCEPTS are distraction techniques to help us get through crisis moments. A crisis is relative and usually self-defined. It could be the death of a loved one, or it could be spilling coffee on your white shirt before a huge job interview. It is anything that escalates your emotions to the point where you may act impulsively on the emotion (such as canceling the job interview you really need).

The one skill within ACCEPTS, that needs to be used mindfully so that it can be used correctly, is the Comparison skill. I often spend more time teaching this skill and clarifying how to use it more than others, and it usually creates a nice discussion and/or a healthy debate within the group.

What is the Comparison Skill?

The comparison skill (as defined in the DBT adolescent manual) suggests comparing yourself to:

  1. others less fortunate than you
  2. how you are feeling now to a time when you were feeling worse
  3. others who are coping the same or less well than you

I am finding that this skill is especially difficult to use correctly during this challenging time we are all living in. Our 24-hour news cycle tends to consume us, and, undeniably, there is a lot of bad news. People are suffering through this pandemic and suffering throughout the world. Everyday, at any moment, we can be made aware of others’ pain and crises. And, on top of it all, we all continue to have the problems, pain and/or reasons for seeking therapy or treatment.

Your pain, whatever it may be caused by, is valid. 

So, it may feel invalidating to compare what you are going through to others. The truth is, there is always someone out there who has it worse, although the word “worse” is a judgment word and we aim to avoid that in DBT. “Worse” is relative.

It may be effective to compare and remember that others are also suffering when something feels like a big deal in the moment, yet may be solvable. Or maybe thinking about others suffering on a larger scale, puts your life into perspective or can create feelings of gratitude.

For example, I was recently at a restaurant and I was very hungry (in the Emotion Regulation module we call this a vulnerability factor). It took a long time to get my food and the server kept disappearing. I was becoming increasingly agitated. When I recognized that my emotions were escalating, I took a couple deep breaths and decided to get grateful that I was even at a restaurant—when so many people aren’t able to have the luxury of dining out or don’t have enough to eat. Comparing myself to others in this way got me through the moment, and I was able to relax until my food arrived. The skill was effective—I tolerated getting through the difficult moment of being angry and hungry.

And also… the skill may not have worked. I may have used it, while invalidating my anger and hunger. I may have cycled into thinking negative thoughts about myself, labeling myself a terrible person for being upset about such a thing when I remember that people are suffering. If I invalidated my feelings, I may have felt worse. My anger and hunger was real.

How Mindfulness Can Help

This is where mindfulness comes in—recognizing when comparing is helpful and when it isn’t. Comparing how you are feeling now to when you are feeling worse can also be tricky.

Let’s say that I am panicking about taking a test. I am having a difficult time with the material and my thoughts are spiraling into, “You are going to fail! You are a failure!” Comparing, in this situation, would mean checking the facts and separating feeling from fact. Using this skill effectively would mean stopping, taking a couple of deep breaths, and reminding myself that I have felt this way before most tests I have ever taken (I have test anxiety), and that I haven’t failed every test. Maybe I haven’t always done as well as I would have liked, AND I haven’t failed every single test.

Using it ineffectively would be if I focused on when I did fail a test (it happens) and making myself feel worse, which in this case is not effective. And, if I wanted to reframe that, I could use self-talk like this:  “Hey Jaime, you have failed tests before and it really felt awful, but it didn’t ruin your life like you thought it would.”

Another thing that wouldn’t be helpful would be comparing myself to everyone in high school who was better at math than me. It may be helpful, however, to remind myself that there are many people out there who aren’t good at math, and it’s okay to not be good at something.

Don’t Give Up

So, what if a skill is ineffective? Try another skill. This is why DBT gives you a whole toolbox. If I was trying to fix a window and pulled out a wrench that didn’t work, I wouldn’t give up on fixing the window. I would look through the toolbox, and through trial and error, find a different tool.

What can almost ALWAYS be helpful when comparing is this fact—you have survived 100% of your worst days so far. Another saying that I find helpful is one of my go-to mottos in life: “Everything is figureoutable.”  And while sometimes it feels that things aren’t “figureoutable,” my track record in life is that even when difficult, I have figured things out. This truth, when you get mindful and think about it, is likely true for you, too.

My point is this—there are many ways to use the comparison skill, and it’s important to be mindful about the language you use when doing so or recognize situations where it isn’t helpful to you.

Back to my original question—Is comparison the thief of joy or a really great DBT Skill?

In true DBT gray area fashion, the answer is both. As we say in DBT, “do what works.”  Equally important—don’t do what doesn’t work. There is always another tool or skill to try and THAT, in my opinion, is the beauty of DBT.

Authored by: Jaime Gleicher, LMSW