Comparison is the thief of joy. ~Theodore Roosevelt (one of my favorite quotes)
A prevailing concern in many clients who come to my office is an unhealthy level of comparison. Unfortunately, comparison is a deeply ingrained human tendency experienced by all of us in different intensities and with different targets. Look at the prevalence of such a strong urgency for so many of us to be checking in repeatedly throughout the day to our social media accounts, largely serving as a means of constant comparison of our lives (down to such a granular level) to others we choose to follow. What we’re doing is comparing our progress, (and sometimes just what we had for lunch), to others to see how we rank and file.
For many, comparison to others begins to occupy a large mental bandwidth of time, energy, and importance. We start believing we could only possibly be good enough if we had what our friends had, or achieve contentment if we looked how the media tells us we ‘should’ look. Inter-Comparison makes a great deal of sense in some way – by comparing our selves to some outside standard, we can obtain a relatively objective stance of how we’re doing. We often feel most content when we know where it is we stand.
Concerningly, however, when we begin to attach our emotional or psychological frameworks of happiness, acceptance, or worth to comparison standards, we start to experience problems. Often the Inter-Comparison of ourself to others quickly turns to an Intra-Comparison of our self with an idealized version of where or how we think we ‘should’ be living our lives. Once we attach undue meaning or exaggerated importance to these standards we may begin to experience a building angst or frustration.
There are a great many examples of where this comparison can be seen. Those struggling with eating disorders have (at least to some extent) have fallen into this trap by identifying a sense of their own well-being or esteem should they reach a comparitive standard arbitrarily set; a number on a scale, or a certain appearance.
Athletes are well known to do this as well, assigning “good enough” status to their achievement in hitting a certain time, finishing in a certain place, or securing a certain record of statistical importance. Most of these accomplishments are again, arbitrarily set on relative terms.
Ok, so now what do we do with this information? I’d say stop comparing, but that’s only a recipe for disaster. First, understand that comparison is mirage; once you reach what you’ve set out to do, you’ll likely only set the bar one notch higher. This process can be completely healthy and adaptive, it’s what drives ambition, success, and progress for each and every one of us as well a society as a whole. But it can also lead to devastating eating disorders in those lowering the weight threshold as it attaches to self-worth or risks injury for athletes playing/training when they should be resting.
Second, realize that what we’re all searching for is mastery. The feeling that we’re learning, growing, gaining competence and are capable in achieving what we deem important. That the process of mastery may in fact be more important than mastery itself.
Third, another of my favorite quotes is, “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else; you have no idea what their journey is about.” Again, realize comparison is a basic human drive. But work to reduce the amount of time and energy you spend comparing. Realize that other’s are struggling in ways we have no access to understanding, some in profoundly deep, difficult ways.
Fourth and finally, breathe. Comparing is a mental activity that takes us away from the present moment. Your breath can only exist in this moment. So breathe and feel your existence in the here and now. The more you are connected to your own life, the less comparing you will need to do to feel a sense of security.
I implore you to be well,