Comparison is the death of joy.
If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.
If you look at the symbol commonly used to show Yin and Yang you will notice each of the larger shapes has a small circle of the opposite color in it. This shows how nothing is completely black or white, good or bad. There is no shadow without light and no light without shadow. Yet, so often it is tempting to think in black and white terms. When comparing yourself to someone else, for example, that tendency to globalize goes into high gear. It’s as if there is no gray, no middle ground, only opposites. Pretty or ugly, rich or poor, success or failure, creative or uninspired, fat or thin. Thinking in that dichotomous way only serves to create misery.
If you are in a 12 step program you may have heard the adage: Compare to despair. The Buddha actually said something like this 2,500 years ago: Comparison is misery. Apparently, people have been comparing themselves to each other for millennia. Regardless of whether you end up with the short or long end of the stick, either on top of the world or lower than a snake’s wiggle, this exercise ultimately creates unhappiness and a sense of separation from others.
One of the inherent problems with comparing yourself to other people is the unconscious tendency to pit your insides against their outsides. You can’t possible know what challenges they have, as no one wears a sign saying: Just diagnosed with terminal cancer, or sexually abused as a child. So, you end up comparing your feelings and internal dialogues to their public image. Since most people in America have been trained to put their game face on, it is extremely unlikely you are getting the full picture. This habit of incessant rating only serves to make you feel inadequate. Next time you notice you are comparing yourself and coming up short, pause and remind yourself you are only seeing a fraction of that person’s life.
As a therapist who has been listening to people for 40 years I know this is true. No matter how beautiful, intelligent, kind, athletic, or creative someone may be they still struggle, like everyone else, to tame their demons. The world sees them one way, while their self-perception is often completely different.
It is all too easy to think the things you observe and esteem in someone else make them happy. They may not. You can’t possibly know what someone else is thinking and feeling. Plenty of people who looked as if they were on top of the world committed suicide. If all the trappings of success actually made them happy they would not have taken their own life. Humans are far more complicated than what they own, wear, or achieve.
You might think, “OK, those are all external things. What about someone who seems truly content?” No one is content 100% of the time. Conditions change minute to minute whether internally or externally; so, it’s impossible to maintain complete equilibrium. The best you can hope for is an inner gyroscope that keeps you coming back to an even keel after getting thrown off balance. Once you know that you will never presume the state you observe in someone is there 24/7. Unless they’re an android.
Conversely, you might think: “But, when I compare myself to others I usually feel better.” That’s a Pyrrhic victory. In the short run it may help you feel like a winner, but at some point you will undoubtedly find someone with more money, better looks, a hotter mate, a bigger house, more adoring children, etc. What then? The habit of comparison will eventually leave you in the dust, so why not work to notice when you do it and actively take time to practice gratitude for everything in your life? Yes, even the things you don’t like.
Surprisingly, there are some ways in which comparison can be helpful. When it is observation mixed with self-inquiry and curiosity. When it comes from looking at someone else’s ways of living and asking yourself if their choices might suit you. Of course, the more self-knowledge you have, the easier this is. Even without much inner probing, trying options on for size by imagining doing things differently can be illuminating. It can also excite and ground you. It’s exciting to do something different and grounding if your inquiry helps you feel more satisfied with your choices.
If you are curious about how often comparison undermines your state of mind, start paying attention to when you do it, what feelings (both emotional and physical) coincide with it, what you tell yourself, and how you feel emotionally and physically afterwards. This is a great journaling exercise. Your new found awareness will help you stop making semi-conscious comparisons and keep you feeling grateful for everything you love about yourself and your life.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang