When anyone sets out to talk about comparison the first thing that comes to mind is this famous Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Comparison is the thief of joy”. It’s a pretty nifty quote that basically sums up the whole thing and everything that’s wrong with it. So, I could just stop there, only I believe that our relationship with comparison is a complicated one and it requires a little more investigation.
There’s a fine line between the inspiration we might get from looking into other people’s lives and their achievements and the debilitating act of self-flagellation it can quickly turn into.
We know comparing our lives with others is unhealthy and we should not do it if we want to be happy. But, we do it anyway, don’t we?
Why we fall into the comparison trap
So why do we compare ourselves with others? Three main reasons come to mind. Firstly, out of curiosity. Humans are inherently curious about the world, something which has proven to be both the source of our progress and of our demise. There’s a certain guilty pleasure in taking a peek in others’ lives. I personally can’t help looking into others’ illuminated windows when passing through on a bus. We’re all curious about our neighbours. We’ll have a sneaky look over the fence. We’ll wonder what’s in that big package waiting for them in our communal hallway. That sort of thing is mostly innocent, but when curiosity leads us into deeper investigations of others’ lives, the ultimate motive I think is to see how their lives compare with ours.
If you’ve never internet stalked anyone, you probably have no idea what the internet is. Social media has made this worse because it forces us to look at other people’s lives whether we want to or not. Whether you’re an avid social media user or not, whether you use it for business or pleasure, as soon as you open your feed you’re immediately faced with snippets of other people’s lives. All that info that people readily make available about themselves, and in many cases carefully curate so as to create a specific impression, plays on our curiosity and fosters comparison. But you know the saying about curiosity. It kills the cat.
Comparison is the compost to growing insecurity
Secondly, we compare ourselves with others out of insecurity. This is the most self-destructive reason of all. We all have insecurities, at least one, to a certain degree, and that’s ok because it’s part of being human and no one is perfect. However, we quickly forget that when we compare ourselves with others. If you’re insecure about your body, every time you look at someone with the body you wish you had, it’ll make you feel bad about yourself. And because insecurities are like plants: the more you water them, the more they grow, comparison acts like the compost to our growing insecurities.
Unfortunately, pictures of “perfection” are sold to us everywhere and we’ll always pale in comparison. It’s impossible not to compare ourselves to a narrative that just looks so desirable, and find ourselves lacking. What we forget to realise, however, through the fogged up lenses of our insecurity is that this narrative is false. I’ve already said that, but please repeat after me anyway: no one is perfect because perfection is an unattainable concept. Of course, it is commendable to want something better for ourselves and to want to improve our lives. But not at the expense of our emotional and mental health.
Comparison is rarely constructive
Which brings me to the third reason for why we fall into the comparison trap: out of a desire to better ourselves. Sometimes we look into other people’s lives and check how our own compares to get some ideas of what we could do better. We look for inspiration and direction and more than that we want to find the common points, how we relate with others in that comparison. However, here’s the danger with that. In looking into other’s strengths all we’re doing is uncovering our own weaknesses and creating unrealistic expectation based on other’s abilities and circumstances and not on our own. Which is far from encouraging and can easily lead to jealousy, the trusty accomplice of comparison, and eventually not only steal your joy, but also disconnect you from your own unique journey. Trying to model ourselves and our lives on someone else’s can only lead to frustration because people are different and everyone starts life with a different set of cards.
Ultimately, comparison is rarely constructive, because it steals our attention away from our own life and focuses it on someone else’s without any reality check and with incomplete and sometimes false information. We might envy someone’s seemingly amazing life and flourishing career, but we don’t see all the hard work, long hours, obstacles and hoops they had to jump through to get there. Would we be able to do the same? Similarly, we don’t see the beneficial conditions, the favourable circumstances, the faithful champions and the luck factor that might have contributed to getting them there. What we really see is smoke and mirrors and our own inadequacy.
Counting others’ blessings instead of your own can only lead to miscalculations and deficits.
What can we do to avoid the comparison trap
The most important thing is to stop counting other’s blessings and focus on your own. There are things in your life right now that are good and worthy. Pay more attention to them and be grateful. If you have a roof over your head, clothes to wear, food to eat and at least one person who loves you than you have enough and anything more is a bonus. When we’re consciously aware and celebrate the good things in our lives, we’re at a better starting point than the position of “not measuring up” that comparison puts us in.
Next, direct your attention back to your own life and focus on your journey. Learn to love your journey for how far it got you and where it can still take you. Know that there’s no need for comparison because your journey is not over yet, you’re still on it!
Understand that what matters is not where you are in your journey but the mindset and attitude with which you’re moving forward.
So, focus on your individual strengths and nurture them as they’re your unique allies and navigators. At the same time, look at what’s available to you outside of your own skills and abilities. What meaningful connections do you have that you can lean on for encouragement and guidance? Are there any tools you already have that you can use to improve your circumstances? Focus on increasing the value of what’s available to you now. Get busy with your life by setting some goals. Take your Smart Plan out, write them down, create an action plan, break it down into smaller weekly and daily tasks and get to it. When you’re busy and focused on your own life there’s no time to look at what others are doing with theirs.
What about Social Media?
If you’re prone to falling down the social media comparison hole, make sure you frequently detox from social media. If social media isn’t part of your day to day work, limit the time you spend on it and have some days when you’re completely off the grid. To avoid looking too much into other people’s lives, especially those you don’t have a close connection with, use the handy functions each platform offers to unfollow and mute those people who post too much about themselves, the humble-braggers as well as the blatant braggers (especially those!). You won’t miss anything, I promise. If someone is posting 80% about themselves and only 20% about other things, you really don’t need that content in your life.
Be kind to yourself
Finally, check yourself and your mindset. If you’re feeling down on yourself, you’re more likely to make negative comparisons. Misery breeds misery, so if it’s one of those days, be kind to yourself and indulge in things that give you comfort and lift your spirits. Go to your favourite cafe, have some cake and read a good book; call or meet a friend who always makes you laugh; put on your favourite relaxing music and have a bath; watch a funny film and avoid social media at all costs!Make this your mantra for the day:
You’re doing the best you can and that’s good enough.
Following this, it’s only fitting that I finish with another Theodore Roosevelt quote, one which to me personally sparks a sense of encouragement and connection to the moment: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Text by Chryssanthi Kouri, a writer and filmmaker based in London. A curious introvert with an interest in self-development, she enjoys writing about life and human nature.
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash