“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt
I couldn’t agree more. How terrible it is to realize a goal we have long been reaching for and then, instead of celebrating our accomplishment, turn our eyes to someone else and compare what we have just done to them. As a trainer, this kills me in the gym. A client will be working on their incline push-ups, slowly adding reps week by week and getting stronger all the time. They’ll reach an exciting PR, usually 20 push-ups in a row and I’ll get my hand up, ready to high five them and then I’ll hear this: “Yeah, but they weren’treal push-ups.”
Ugh! It crushes me when someone can’t see the progress they have made and the strength they have built through their own hard work just because it’s not what they think they should be doing. What could have been proof irrefutable of their own increasing capacity has instead turned into another reason why they don’t measure up. Because I know how awful this can feel and the havoc it can wreck on self-confidence I always start a conversation at this point:
“What do you mean by real push-ups?”
“You know, on the ground.”
“Because you think those are harder than what you did?”
“Yeah, I’m a wuss, I can’t even do push-ups on the ground!”
“You know how we’ve been having you do push-ups on an incline because there is less gravity working on you and so it allows you to use good form? And then you got stronger and then you went a little lower, and then you got stronger and went a little lower again and then we increased how many you had to do?”
“Did you know that some people do what are called decline push-ups, where they add more gravity to themselves by having their hands on the ground and their feet up on a step?”
“Or they put a resistance band around their backs so that the push-ups become more difficult? Or they lay a 25 lb. plate on their back? And some people even do the push-up so fast that they come up and clap in mid-air before the next one!”
“My point is, if you think a real push-up is one that is hard, there is always going to be someone out there that is doing something harder. And if that’s all you can see you will always think of yourself as weak. My goal is for you to get stronger and stronger so that what once seemed impossiblefor you has now become possible for you. When you first started you never could have done 20 push-ups, but today you did, and with perfect form. It challenged you, but you succeeded. You did something real, just now. The only person we can compare you to is you. And you are strong.”
Comparison is like a creepy little pickpocket, scurrying around, snatching our satisfaction out of our grasp. It’s awful when it ruins our ability to appreciate an accomplishment, it’s even worse when it takes away our enjoyment of our everyday lives. How often do you worry that your work isn’t as good as someone else’s? Or that your home is not as clean or well-cared for as so-and-so’s? Or that everyone else is _____, while you are over here doing _____?
We compare everything we have, our jobs, our homes, our cars, our clothes, our hobbies. We compare our bodies, our hair, how tall or short we are, how fit or unfit, the color of our skin, the shape of all our pieces and parts. We even compare how we do things, how we walk or talk, how we perform in sport, how we eat certain foods, how we make or don’t make our beds, our dental hygiene, they ways we do our laundry. You name it, we will compare it. And, in the end, we either find ourselves wanting, lacking, less-than or we self-righteously declare ourselves better-than. Either way, what we’re really doing is trying to manage some small, frightened part of us that worries that we might not measure up if anyone’s measuring…and surely they must be.
Clearly, comparison is the thief of joy. The reasons we torment ourselves this way are many and myriad. But like all of our collective demons it’s just that— collective. Comparison is a cultural idea, imbedded in us like our DNA.
I woke up this morning and the first thought in my head was this: our cultural obsession with comparative pricing has come back to haunt us as a comparative culture. How can we start to see our individual merits as just that and let go of comparing ourselves to others or to the mythical “other” in our own minds?
Usually my first thought has something to do with coffee or having to pee, but everybody gets those occasional special days, right?
We live in a culture of choices. As I’ve spoken about in other entries, choice is often the enemy of progress. There is a big distinction between choices and decisions. A choice is an option that is presented to us, too many options and we tend to shut down because we feel overwhelmed. A decision is a clear prioritizing of one thing over another, it energizes us and promotes action. A decision comes from within, a choice is external.
In a comparison culture, the act of comparison is necessary to navigate the overwhelming abundance of choices. We compare products in a store, then we compare the prices of the products, maybe we see someone else select a different product and we reconsider, or we think of the commercial we saw and the celebrity endorsing the product and we compare our life to theirs and think of how we’d like to be more like them. And there we are, still standing in the damn aisle staring at the salad dressing like the choice we are making has some sort of significance outside of dinner tonight!
Comparison thiefs my joy as much as the next guy. I’m aware of it and I’m aware of how miserable it can make me. I don’t really buy salad dressing, but there are tons of choices presented to me in my daily life and I live within this comparison culture as much as anyone else. If you can’t avoid something you need to learn how to relieve it, manage it or hijack it, much like I talked about doing with stress. I’m mostly interested in hijacking because I think it’s more effective, plus it sounds cool.
Right now, the best way I’ve found to hijack comparison is to use a specific type of gratitude practice. There is a growing body of evidence that practicing gratitude can produce real benefits in your life and I have experienced this enough in my own life that I’m sold on it. In regards to this specific issue, I find that a gratitude practice that not only observes gratitude but also provides a reason for it seems to work best. This is relatively simple, you select something that you are grateful for (something you’re having problems with in terms of comparison) and then state why you are grateful for it. It could look like this: “I am very grateful for the home that I live in because it shelters me from the elements, has really good heat that makes me cozy on cold days, has nice wood floors that are easy to keep clean and is well decorated with lots of things in it that I like to look at. My home is my safe, protected, cozy, beautiful space.”
One of the big things going on here is that you shift from a negative view to a positive view. You stop looking at what you think you are lacking, the comparison of your perceptionof what others have and you do not, and start looking at what you have, the things that exist in your life that protect you, make you happy, improve your life.
Changing your perspective in this way is actually changing from a fantasy-based perspective to a reality-based perspective. When we compare ourselves to others, or to an idealized version of who we think we should be, we are not working with reality. We are comparing ourselves to aperception that we have of someone else or to a belief we hold about who we should be. Neither of those things exist in the real world. Who we are right this minute, the wonderful things we have right now, the amazing abilities we possess, the things we have accomplished, those are all real world things, they actually exist. What we see when we look at someone else is never the full picture. And an idealized version of ourselves is pure fantasy.
Using a gratitude practice that focuses on the reasons for our gratitude helps us to keep an eye on what is real and right in front of us. This doesn’t mean that we ignore places where we want to improve or grow (you know I’m not about that). It does mean that we focus on strengths we already possess that will help us improve or grow. A focus on all the ways we can’t do the things that we want gets us no closer to them.
The symptoms of comparison-fatigue can sometimes be hard to locate, but often a general feeling of crapiness is a sure sign. Next time you feel totally crappy, try this practice and see if ithelps. As you get a handle on it, be a little daring and start using it on things that you might possibly compare, even if you’re not doing that right this minute. Places to start: your body, you as a person, how you live your life. Imagine what that could be like, being grateful for your body, for yourself, for your life.
When you try this you may notice a certain feeling, a feeling that can only be described as running full-tilt through a crowded market place after a sneaky pickpocket, tackling them and grabbing your joy from out of their dirty little mitts, and putting it right back in your heart where it belongs.