Theodore Roosevelt once said ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’.
As much as this statement holds some truth, I believe that comparison could also bring inspiration, rejuvenation, connection and excitement. I’m not here to tell you not to compare yourself with others, but rather share with you how to compare in order to reap the benefits of comparison.
Comparison is an extremely natural and universal experience. In fact, we often make sense of the world by making comparisons. We won’t know darkness without comparing it to light, we won’t know something is expensive if there wasn’t a cheaper alternative. Similarly, we make sense of where we stand by comparing to others around, comparing against the norm, comparing against set standards because when we know where we stand, it helps us make decisions on how to move.
In the therapy room, I often meet individuals who struggle with feeling inadequate as they compare themselves with others. It impacts their entire being. Their mind might be preoccupied with thoughts of comparison, a whole bunch of emotions pop up (shame, hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, desperation amongst others) and their nervous system also reacts with anxiety and tension. When the sense of inadequacy sets in with a sense of ‘I’m not good enough’, they might shut down and that makes it harder for them to access energy and motivation.
If you identify with what I described above, I want to let you know that comparison doesn’t necessarily have to end up stealing your joy. Let me share with you some points that I hope would help provide some guidance moving out of a state of potential inertia and paralysis and moving towards inspiration, taking action and increased connection with yourself and your compared other.
Begin with yourself and look inward
When we compare with others, our focus is on the external. I want to encourage you to turn inward as a crucial first step and ask yourself: What are some of my goals in life? Why these particular goals and not others? What are my values that I hold onto? What excites me? What gives me energy? Look below the surface and find out what really drives you. These are often questions that you have answers to, if you pay close attention to your internal experience. Even if you are in a place in your life that you don’t feel excited currently, take some time to go over your memories of the last time you felt that way, and let that guide you to what is important in your life.
Pay attention to who you are comparing yourself with
Take some time to reflect on the people that you are currently comparing yourself with. Why are you choosing these people? In order for these person/persons to potentially serve as a source of inspiration, a role model, a mentor, look for people that align with your values and beliefs, people that you know you would enjoy their company and not just people you want to beat. There are so many others who are ‘better’ ‘more successful’ but if they do not align with your values, it introduces unnecessary internal conflict within yourself.
Examine your assumptions regarding the compared other
Often, when we look at the other person, we look at what is visible on the outside, the achievements, the successes. With the proliferation of social media, we get drawn to the curation of what perfection seemingly looks like, great days, attractive things that casts your normal life in stark contrast. When you are comparing your life with that of the other, pause and reflect on what might be some of the things that you are not seeing, perhaps their inner struggles and conflicts, their difficulties and challenges that they face on particular days. They might be going through some of the things you are experiencing as well. Rather than pause at a cursory comparison of the other, why not take the opportunity to reach out and perhaps even dialogue with them, whether they experience challenges and how they overcome them. That’s where you find inspiration and open up more meaningful connection with the other. That’s how the other person becomes a fellow human that could potentially add to your life, and not just a far away target to beat or emulate.
Be compassionate towards yourself
The reality of comparison is that most likely, there is currently a gap between the other person and you. If this is inevitable, rather than spend time criticizing yourself and reminding yourself of the gap, be compassionate towards yourself. Celebrate small accomplishments and successes. Help yourself along your journey to being the person you envision yourself to become by giving yourself positive boosts of energy and validation along the way. Contrary to what you might believe, positive motivation goes a longer way than whipping yourself with criticism (in this case, the carrot is better than the whip, in the long run). Take time to experience and express gratitude towards yourself for sticking to your goals even when the going gets tough.
Take action, no matter how small.
Lastly, there are going to be days when your motivation and energy fluctuates, and perhaps you find that your progress today is much lesser than it was yesterday. Don’t fret over it, its natural. If you notice anxiety arising, remind yourself that it does not mean that you are wasting your time, and that you are never going to reach the goals you set for yourself. Be mindful of those runaway thoughts and bring them back to the present moment. Just focus on doing one thing today that helps you move closer to your goal. If there is simply no energy to do even that, then focus on being compassionate today so that you can recover enough to progress tomorrow again.
If you find yourself stuck in a pattern of paralyzing and anxious comparison despite the above, perhaps you would like to consider reaching out to a therapist to work through the barriers and challenges you face. Its time to reclaim that sense of grounded-ness and inner peace while being inspired by others.