Since comparing ourselves to others is so often a happiness killer, and since comparing ourselves to others takes energy away from achieving our own desires, I am devoting this blog installment to this favorite past-time of overachievers, and the chronically unhappy—and most of the rest of us.
First, I’m going to call out comparison game, then provide an alternative approach for those of us who would like to dare not to compare, and enjoy ourselves and others free from this zero-sum distraction from true happiness.
It’s not like we all haven’t done it at one time or another: we look across the room, or in a magazine, or in or minds eye at a contemporary or friend—sometimes especially a friend—and look back at ourselves to make our assessment: Are we inferior, or superior, or at least OK?
And some of us do it more often than others. Certain personality types are more susceptible, and some even make an art of it, but all kinds of folks can fall into the habit—and it is a habit—of doing it. The comparison game is real energy drain (though some of us may fool ourselves into thinking it motivates us), and sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are doing it.
And what do we get out of it?
Well, if the verdict is “Inferior,” we feel less-than. We might rationalize why we aren’t doing as well. We might feel envy. We might try some blame for why we aren’t measuring up. We might feel a constant tension or pressure to work harder or do more or compensate somehow. In extreme cases might feel angry, and then again we may squash that anger down so that it feels like lethargy or even depression. Yuck. Some of us might bear down extra hard and in the end, win our prize, at the expense of increase stress, and even illness. This is what happens when the heart isn’t in it, but the mind must win.
If the verdict we reach after comparison is “equal to,” we might feel OK for a while. “Hey, she’s doing about as well as I am… nothing to feel bad about there.” Yeah, but if we’re honest about it, the only way we can now feel better from here, is if we can now do better than. And the flip-side is if in the near future, we do worse than, we risk a downward emotional spiral.
If the verdict is “superior,” we might feel great, even giddy. Based on what? Do we really want to base our self-image or happiness on doing “better” than another human being? This kind of lease on feeling good is tenuous at best, and if we really think about it, we really don’t feel good at all in these situations. The feeling of “better than” is a chimera, and our larger selves know it. Our larger selves know that value is something that doesn’t change based on looks, health, material wealth, social status, or who we know… or anything else.
So why do we do it?
It’s an ego thing. We’re social beings, and comparison gives the ego this sense of stability. The ego loves labels and judgments and neat packages. Judgments take the burden of further processing off the ego’s already full plate. Plus in the absence of true self-value, the ego’s external wins become increasingly important. They aren’t just fun, they’re necessary.
The average ego is like a well-meaning employee who doesn’t want to run the company, but we keep asking him to. He just wants things neat and simple and easy to do. She wants clear instructions. She wants to know where she stands relative to everyone else in the “company.” That’s the average ego.
Unlike the some other coaches in the human potential and spiritual domain, I’m not an ego basher, but I am a believer in developing a healthy, transparent ego as a partner in creating an expansive, joyful life. The healthy, transparent ego isn’t an overworked employee uncertain of his or her role, but more like an empowered employee with full access to advice and guidance from other parts of the self—parts that aren’t available when the ego is distracted by comparison and worried about worth and status.
So how do we put a halt to this comparison game?
When I write: “dare not to compare,” I am not expecting folks to start right off stopping their habit of comparing cold-turkey, though this is actually achievable–at least for sizable swaths of time. No, there are some interim tactics we can employ as part of our overall “Dare not to Compare” strategy.
Realize it’s the intent behind comparison that’s the real happiness killer. Comparing with the intent of self-judgment—any kind of self-judgment—works against us. Comparing with the intent of judging—good or bad—weakens us by limiting our further understanding and access to the guidance that referred to earlier in this post. You can’t judge and love at the same time.
Understand that comparing yourself in a negative is most likely, almost totally definitely, pretty much always certainly, well, based on only partial information. Pry lose your comparison habit by admitting that you really don’t know very much at all about what it’s like to live someone else’s life, and every moment that you compare your life to other lives, you simply aren’t present and focused in yours! The energy you are sucking away through comparison is probably based on a false premise. Admit it to yourself. Can you really know enough about another’s life that you can accurately know if they are better or worse off than you? No way.
If the outcome of our comparison game leaves you feeling superior to another, the same truths apply. You really don’t know enough about what its like to live another person’s life. You can only suppose. And once you judge, you cut yourself off from further understanding and love.
Only compare with the intent of finding inspiration, or new possibilities. If envy pops up, know that this emotion is only telling you one thing: the difference between where or what you want to be, and where or what you think you are. Once you realize this, both envy and comparison become tools at your disposal. You can use them consciously towards the improvements you are looking for. Envy and comparison just showed you how you want to feel: you want to feel how you think that other person is feeling doing what they are doing.
Now, what steps can you take to get to where you are feeling that good (as good as you imagine they are feeling)?
Return to your life in the moment. Are you on track? Are your thoughts, and choices you are making now, lining up with your desires for your future? Coming back again and again to this awareness not only defeats comparison, it supports self-value. You have a life to live. Your life. When you are engaged in comparison, you aren’t living your life. Who are you? What do you want? Other lives can bring ideas, but your truest happiness will come from emotionally charged desires that are yours.
Remember that most people who truly care for you in fact care for you based on who you are, not what you do or own or what social network you are in, etc. Nurturing an awareness of this truth will support your other approaches as you stop the comparison game.
Last but not least, lighten up! Why is it so important to be the better at this or that? Why not go for what gives you a healthy buzz in your life? Go for what uplifts you right now, and before you know it, you’ll be paying more attention to living, than how well you are doing. You will never get your best answers through comparison, and you’re better-off playfully, purposefully exploring your own capacities regardless of what others are thinking or doing. Stop grading yourself and start taking in this amazing life. You won’t be sorry.
Mark Petruzzi: Performance Consultant. Life-coach. Speaker-Facilitator. Mark is currently writing “The Desire Engine,” a book about reclaiming choice, and building an inner life that fuels our “engine” of expansion and purpose.