We often look to others to compare, contrast, and evaluate success or failure in our own lives, and this mindset can be an incredibly powerful creative and motivational force. It’s entrenched in our biology, that desire to strive higher than those who surround us, and facilitated readily in our social media culture – even celebrated. Yet the value of the comparison mindset can easily be outweighed by envy, jealousy, and a loss of self-worth, feelings which tear down others and eventually ourselves. But there are ways to guard against this – here are four:
1. Compare generosity not external markers of success
Social media has turbo-charged the comparison mindset. Think you have a great body, nice house, or excellent holiday choices? Then post it on Facebook and Instagram, or tweet a humble brag on Twitter and watch the positive affirmation come flooding through in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. But wait, what happens if the ‘like’ count is low? Or worst still, what if it’s lower than your friends? Very quickly the first twinges of disappointment start to form. Perhaps your new car wasn’t as flashy as you thought. And it’s not just social media where we make these sorts of comparisons. They can crop up in the real world every now and then, too. How do you feel when you find out in person that your close friend has won a big promotion, or suddenly looks healthier and younger?
As Oscar Wilde once said, however, ‘Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.’
If we want to follow this line of thought, we can start by reducing our triggers for judgement and envy by not checking social media so much. And if we really can’t stop comparing we can instead focus on acts of generosity that our peers perform. If you see someone help the homeless, give them a kind word. Or if a colleague gives money to charity, let them know how important that action was. You could even start doing some of the same things yourself – you get the picture
2. Stop comparing in conversation
Our comparison mindset really gets tested in conversation. We can’t help but boast about our lives are when talking to others. This can be explicit, like when someone describes their holiday and you respond with how great your holiday was, or it can happen more subtly – perhaps without you even realising you are doing it. So you can’t help but highlight something’s weaknesses and problems in the form of ‘constructive feedback’? Perhaps subconsciously what you’re really saying is that the other person is not good enough and you’re better.
A simple remedy is to praise the strengths of others, rather than fixing their weaknesses. The management guru Peter Drucker said as much in describing how best to manage others. A more refined approach is to employ non-violent communication which removes judgement from the conversation. Here you state facts, express your feelings and make requests rather than use facts to label people negatively.
3. If you must compare, compare yourself with yourself
Why compare yourself with others who have different circumstances, life experiences, and genetic makeup? Others may be able to do things that are simply not possible for you. More importantly, when you see the external success of someone, you don’t know what is going on inside their heads. They may look successful, but be deeply unhappy – this is a common trap of the highlight reel nature of Facebook and Instagram. It presents a false reality of glamour and success. But someone who you do know well is yourself.
So look at your life today and compare it to last year. Are you wiser than a year ago? Are you healthier? In this way, you are redirecting your comparison mindset to within a healthy boundary: your own life. Now, we also need to bear in mind that life has its ups and downs. But bad times don’t last forever and often are followed by periods of growth. Movies tap often tap into this by using the ‘hero’s journey’. Think Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Luke Skywalker and Rey in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix, or Iron Man in Avengers. All of them embark on a journey through which they end up becoming better versions of themselves. So become the hero in the story of your own life.
4. Observe, and accept your comparison thoughts for what they are
Most of the time, we are unaware of how much our minds are comparing and judging. We, therefore, need to take time out to learn about our minds. Mindfulness and meditation is a time-honoured method to do this. Set aside ten minutes, sit silently, focus on your breathing and just observe your thoughts. It can be quite the adventure – you may find your thoughts go from euphoria about a recent success to depression about some hurtful comments. All this while you’re just sitting in silence. But through practise, we can start to notice patterns about how our mind judges itself.
We may find we are especially sensitive to the comments of people in authority, or to our physical attributes. Either way, simply recognising our recurring comparison thoughts and letting them play out in our minds can be surprisingly uplifting. As Sun Tzu, the Chinese strategist from 500BC, once wrote, ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’
Our comparison mindset is innate to us. It’s a creative force, but it has a dark side, too. Thankfully, there are time-tested techniques to limit the negative side of them and possibly even channel the mind to more powerful, positive thoughts than before.
Sign up to my regular newsletter here: