Bipolar & the Comparison Game

Last Updated: 10 Jan 2022

With bipolar, sometimes we need to rewrite the “rules” of life and follow our own timelines instead of others’ newsfeeds and social media stories.

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Over the years, I’ve learned something very important about living with bipolar disorder: never compare yourself to others.

It’s just about the easiest thing in the world to do, especially with the proliferation of social media. I am guilty of playing the comparison game, and I have done it a lot.

Questions & Comparisons

Even in high school, I was comparing myself to others: Why did I feel more depressed and anxious than my classmates? And why was my mind racing so fast?

I would look around my American history or precalculus classrooms and daydream about how great it would feel to be normal, to worry about dating and who I was going to sit with at lunch.

Instead, I was analyzing my every mood and visiting the offices of myriad counselors and psychiatrists.

As a young adult with bipolar disorder, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin.

In addition to feeling out of place, I compounded the problem by comparing myself to just about everyone else. It seemed that either I was “crazy” or I just didn’t measure up. I worried that I would never get into college, and, if I did, that my brain-based disorder would preclude me from actually attending.

Bitterness & Feeling Limited by Bipolar

I stayed in this pity party for a long time.

Sitting in the lobby of my psychiatrist’s office, I would dread the inevitable talk about more and more medications. My friends weren’t on mood-stabilizing medication, and they all seemed so happy and successful.

When I was in the hospital, I was resentful of the medical students, too. I wanted to know why they were stable enough to go to medical school, why they didn’t have a serious mental illness that wreaked such havoc on their lives.

But I hated being such a bitter person, and comparing myself to almost everyone I encountered was becoming a burden I couldn’t manage anymore.

Again, Facebook turned into an obsession of comparisons. My daily feed showed my friends going to graduate school, getting married, and having babies. But my main activities were seeing doctors and swallowing handfuls of medication throughout the day.

I wanted what everyone else had, but it seemed like my bipolar disorder was getting in the way of me having a happy, productive life.

Perceptions & Highlight Reels

Until I started to put things into perspective. Just because you see people smiling and looking happy online doesn’t mean that’s representative of their reality. Everyone has problems, whether they are coping with a mental health condition like bipolar disorder or not.

My friends might not have been advertising it, but they were having miscarriages, flunking out of college, and breaking up with their significant others.

Suddenly, bipolar didn’t seem so bad, when you look beneath the surface.

But it still takes a lot of effort to not compare myself to my friends and family. And, sometimes, it seems like almost everyone else is more successful than me. I wonder if they have figured out the secret to life, and I am still putzing around, taking medications, and trying to figure out how big a role my bipolar disorder is going to play in the day-to-day reality of my life.

Bringing Bipolar into Focus

In the end, bipolar is an illness. Sometimes, it seems to color nearly every other aspect of my life. I often wonder if I should have children since I might pass along the “crazy gene.” I don’t want to miss out on being a mother, as I see all the joy my friends are getting out of being parents.

So, I have to adjust my life a little bit. Or maybe a lot.

I’m coping on a day-to-day basis with a brain-based mood disorder that can sometimes distort reality. An illness that has sent me on a roller-coaster ride full of mood swings that get in the way of my success.

But bipolar disorder has enriched my life in a way that many other experiences could not. It has made me an authentic person and enhanced my creativity.

Different Timelines

I have a different timeline than most people—and that’s okay.

It took me many years to graduate college, and I was so jealous of my classmates who did it in only four. But to live with bipolar, you have to give up on these “rules” society imposes upon us.

Because of my mood disturbances, school was hard for me. But, I did get through it, and I probably learned a lot more about life than my friends who graduated “on time.”

And, maybe, in the end, there is no timeline at all. I have learned that I can only do my best. There will be others who are better than me in so many ways. They may be better at school, better writers, or whatever. But part of living and growing with bipolar disorder is knowing what is me and what is the illness.

When I compare myself to others, this whole essential process about identity and bipolar gets distorted. Everyone has problems, even those friends of mine who seem so happy on Facebook.

It’s a Process

Bipolar disorder has also shown me that I need to live on a day-by-day basis. This also means not spending so much time on social media comparing myself to my friends and acquaintances.

Bipolar is teaching me life lessons that I couldn’t learn in the classroom or from some of the other experiences my friends are having. You don’t need to go to medical school and become a doctor to learn about the value of hard work, for example.

I just want to be me, however that comes out. I am sure that I will always spend a little extra time on Facebook reading about what everyone is up to, but I’m getting to the point where I can be happy and delighted for all their accomplishments and achievements, their joys and exciting announcements.

And I’m starting to feel more comfortable in my own skin, happy to be me.

Originally posted January 5, 2022

About the author
Elizabeth Drucker is a writer living in Chicago. She has a BA in sociology from the University of Arizona and a master's degree in educational leadership & policy analysis (ELPA) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  1. Hi Elizabeth, thank you so much for writing this article. I really, really needed to read this right now and I will likely re-read it or print it out and keep it near me, to remind myself of a healthy focus in life.

  2. Yes, many times I’ve compared myself to others. I do find “work arounds” to navigate life with BP 1. 19 years ago I was diagnosed. I had post-partum psychosis 4 years before that. My son does have BP we found out just over a year ago. He can still work to support himself and his wife. There are many other health problems that would be worse. I like to think that people do the best they can. Just to be able to work to support yourself and family and try to help better society is enough for me.

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