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Stop Comparing: No One Can Do a Better Job of Being You

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“Why compare yourself with others? No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you than you.” ~Unknown

For fifteen years I gave up on art.

I’d been an “artistic” kid, always drawing and painting, but by first or second grade I was already comparing my work to that of other kids and judging it as inferior.

At thirteen I quit making art altogether. There were other kids who could draw so much more realistically than I could—kids to whom anything artistic just seemed to come naturally—and I jumped to the conclusion that their superior skills meant that they were the artists, and that therefore I wasn’t.

I was the poster child of “compare and despair syndrome,” caught in the comparison trap so badly that the only escape route seemed to be just giving up.

Then fifteen years later, when I was twenty-eight, I found myself fascinated with the art of calligraphy.

I started playing with paper and pens, and it was as if I’d opened a floodgate: soon I was accumulating books and supplies, immersing myself in classes and workshops, rekindling the joy in creating that I’d felt as a young child, before the comparison trap shut me down.

Those harsh self-judgments hadn’t gone away, however.

I’d pore through my calligraphy books and magazines, tears streaming down my face because I just knew my work would never be as good as the pieces on those pages. Every workshop I went to offered more opportunities for comparison with people whose work felt so vastly superior to mine.

I got stuck in the comparison trap so often it’s amazing I managed to make any progress at all.

I remember one workshop in particular, about a year into my calligraphic adventure. The class was all about making decorated initials, and the teacher offered technique after technique to spark our creativity. After each demonstration we’d all race back to our tables to try out what we’d learned.

My comparison trap gremlins—those voices that try to convince me that my work is inferior to everyone else’s—were working overtime.

The woman sharing my work table, Linda, had years of experience under her belt, and the work she was creating showed evidence of her skill and expertise.

Beyond that, though, it was just so creative! The colors she used were so exciting! Her ideas were so cool and interesting!

My own work felt so pathetic in comparison.

Her work inspired me to try new things, but still, nothing I made felt as fresh as what she created. My spirits wavered back and forth between excitement at playing with paper and color, and despair that nothing I created was as beautiful as my table partner’s work.

As the weekend went on, we spread our small exercises out on the floor near our tables so everyone could see the product of our work. With each new addition to our “galleries,” my ego shrunk smaller and smaller, and my negative self-talk got louder.

“Her work is so amazing!” said my gremlins, “Why can’t you make work like that? Your work is so boring!”

Imagine my surprise when Linda turned to me and said, “Melissa, your work is so amazing! My work is so boring—I wish I could make work like yours!”

I was astonished. How could she say that? Her work, boring?

To me, her work was fresh and exciting. But as we talked I realized that what was felt fresh and exciting to me, to Linda felt like the same old stuff she’d been doing forever.

*Click!*

Suddenly, it was as if the world shifted two degrees to the left. Like I was seeing everything through a different lens.

Maybe the truth wasn’t that my work was inferior to Linda’s. Maybe it was simply that her work felt more interesting and exciting to me than my own because it came from her unconscious, her personality, her sensibility—all of which were, of course, totally unknown and mysterious to me.

My own unconscious, personality, and sensibility might not be completely known to me, either, but I know them better than I do anyone else’s, so by definition what springs from me is going to feel less fresh to me than what springs from someone else.

What could I do but laugh? I shared with Linda that I’d been admiring and envying her work all weekend, that I’d tried to emulate her work to make mine more interesting, and she confessed she’d been doing the same on her end, incorporating elements of my work that she particularly liked.

I learned an important lesson that weekend.

I learned that my job is not to judge the value of my creations, but simply to create. My job as an artist is to express me, to pull out the unique expression that can only exist because it’s coming from inside me, and there is only one me.

Your job as a creator is to express you.

Martha Graham said it best, in this quote, which is posted on my wall near my workspace:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.

You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

~ Martha Graham

I remind myself all the time that it’s not my business to determine how good or valuable my expression is, or how it compares with others. It is my business to keep it mine, to be me—that is where the true value of my creativity lies.

Of course the same is true for you.

Compare and despair syndrome doesn’t only keep us stuck when it comes to creative endeavors, however. It’s easy to get stuck in the comparison trap in all areas of life!

The way someone dresses, their choice of a career or lifestyle, the style of their home décor, their food choices or exercise routine—I’ve stepped into the comparison trap around each and every one of these things and more.

From where I sit, what someone else is doing, the choices they make, can so often seem much more sparkly and fresh than my own life.

What to do? Simply remind myself of what I learned in that workshop with Linda: that other people’s choices will feel more interesting and exciting to me than my own because they come from their unconscious, their personality, their sensibility—all of which are, of course, totally unknown and mysterious to me.

Just like in that workshop with Linda, I allow myself to try things out, using the comparison trap as a gauge to help me experiment and grow. I ask myself: Does this different way of being in the world work for me? Is there something here that I can customize to fit my own needs and desires?

Then I remind myself that, in the end, there’s no comparison. No one in the world can do a better job of being me.

Photo by Marjan Lazarevski

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About Melissa Dinwiddie

Melissa Dinwiddie is an artist and creativity instigator, on a mission to empower people to feed their creative hungers. Find out more, and get a FREE printable mini-poster of her Imperfectionist Manifesto at Living A Creative Life.

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  • Tim

    I loved your post! I’m glad that I get to be the first person to say something (that way I don’t have to compare my comments with other comments). Just kidding. I fall into this trap all the time. Now at work they just hired this new guy who is really competitive and wants to beat me at everything. It’s terrible. My daughter is a great artist, but I see her giving up on things because she compares herself to people all the time too. The quote you included in your post was really helpful. Thank you.

  • Geetika

    Could I just tell you how much I love you for writing this post. God bless you! :*

  • http://www.socratezonline.com/ Socratez

    Great post! Sounds very familiar indeed, being an artist myself.
    Since some time I’ve also discovered that comparing is utterly pointless, though using others as a source of inspiration is a good thing to do. You can learn a lot from people that stir your feelings, because they have something you can relate to.

    But comparing is judging, and when you judge you bring ego into the equation of something that has nothing to do with ego. Creativity is a universal principle, and I sincerely believe that everyone is creative in one way or another. When we judge, we disconnect from the source that inspires us to create, so it’s very counterproductive. Not to mention that the act of creation is enjoyable, but when we constantly compare it ruins the fun.

    I meet a lot of artists who suffer from their self-judgment when it comes to comparing, but like you mentioned, also just people in general. I only like competition when it comes to sports, because it puts you on edge, but I don’t take it personally.

  • ekanost

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing your experiences! I recently had a friend who got a very prestigious job and I started comparing my accomplishments with his. Then I realized, we are on two completely different life paths, and I am just as happy with my choices even if they might not seem exciting to others!

  • http://www.mimaonfire.com/ Michelle

    Totally relate to this one! As a writer, I am NEVER satisfied with anything I write. It doesn’t matter if it is a blog or a book – I’m my own worst critic, never happy and constantly comparing myself to other authors. But this article makes a great point — I may not always take the same route as everyone else but I create an interesting drive toward the destination — even though it is not perfect;-)

  • Marsha

    I took art classes for awhile. It was a fairly large class (off and on) and I would get frustrated because my teacher got to the point where she told me to go home and change whatever I’d done during the week on a painting. I’d change it, come back to class a week later and she’d change it again. I felt like everything I did was not going to be what she liked. I had started the painting at home from a photo and made the colors very similar to the photo. I brought it in with the photo and she made me take all the color out and the painting turned into muddy greens, greys and browns. It was a fall photo with read and orange leaves on the trees. I stopped going to class after about four weeks. I could never understand why she did that and I lost my enthusiasm. The unfinished painting is still on my easel and I am hoping to put it back the way I wanted it after the holidays. No more classes for me.

  • Michaela Cristallo

    Loved this post Melissa! I have definitely fallen into this trap as a creator and it can be absolutely paralysing. I think the most important thing to remember is that when we compare our creative work with others it’s not a like for like comparison. You’re comparing a very carefully curated presentation of their work to the reality of your own creative work – with all its known inconsistencies and struggles.

    And you’re right, their work will always seem more interesting to us because it is new – just as our work is to others. Thanks for the insightful post :)

  • Nicole Martin

    Competition only divides. To love yourself is to allow your own creative genius to express.
    Your common sense reached its target in me.

  • Nicole Martin

    Competition only divides. To surrender to your own creative genius is to be consciously alive and to express joy. That is always the progressive way to go. Thank you, Melissa. Your common sense hit the target with me.

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Yes, I agree, Socratez, that comparing is utterly pointless. Unfortunately that doesn’t stop people from doing it. :) But noticing when I’m stepping into that trap helps me pull myself out.

    I also agree SO STRONGLY that creativity is a universal principle, not something that only The Artists have access to. We are ALL born creative. The problem is never lack of creativity, but rather all the gunk (fear, self-doubt, self-judgment…) that gets in the way. When we learn tools for dealing with these, we regain access to our native creativity.

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Aw, thanks, ekanost! And OMG, if I had a dollar for every time I fell into that same trap with friends doing really cool things, being on different life paths from my own! It takes self-awareness and self-compassion to pull back and notice that, hey, my life path is equally valid, and just as good. :)

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Yep, me, too, Michelle! The interesting thing I’ve found, though, is that it’s often the work that I’m least satisfied with that gets the most positive reaction from others! We never know how our work will touch someone, which is one reason why I’m committed to continuing to share, even though I’ll probably never be 100% satisfied with anything I create.

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Oh, that’s so sad, Marsha! Teachers can do so much damage, and often they have no idea they’re doing it.

    YOU are always the final judge of your work. You always get to trust yourself, regardless of what any teacher tells you. I do hope you don’t give up on classes completely, though. One bad teacher is definitely no representative of the entire world of art classes!

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    You’re so right, Michaela — it’s never a like-for-like comparison. So hard to get out of our heads to remember this sometimes, though, isn’t it?

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Thanks, Tim! What a frustrating situation to be in a competitive space at work. And when I see kids give up on things because they’re comparing, it just breaks my heart. I hope my article will be helpful for your daughter.

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Aw, thank you, Geetika! I love you for commenting. :)

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    I love this sentiment, Nicole! And I’m so glad my article hit the target with you. :)

  • beachmama

    We all struggle with this to some degree. I though that by the time I hit 40 I’d be over it . . . then 50 . . . now I’m a year from 60 and I still struggle with comparison! Thanks for leading us up to what has often gone through my mind and has stopped me from moving forward on so many things in life . . .

  • Mayan

    Wow, Melissa, thank you so much for this article. I feel I’ve always struggled with this and now more than ever being a recent graduate pursuing a career in a creative industry. It can get overwhelming at times to try and face the world and tackle new jobs/experiences when my own mind is my biggest enemy.

    I’m not sure why I feel the need to compare myself so much, but you are right, it can spread to many areas of ones life. I know it has for me. I feel I suffer from “compare and despair” syndrome (first time I’ve seen a name for what I’ve been feeling!) along with Imposter syndrome.

    This article was a great reminder of what it means to be oneself and not worry about others. I never thought about how others’ creations feel more interesting to me only because I’m not used to it, but to them, its the same ol’ thing.

    Once again I thank you for this article because it has helped me. I just hope these little reminders and tips will continue to allow me to control the negative feelings I sometimes have so I can live my adult life to the best of my abilities without succumbing to fear.

  • Grace

    Melissa,

    Thank you so much for this timely article! I have let go of so many passions because of the comparison trap, but am ready to just go for it because it brings me joy. I am always waiting for the green light from others, but it keeps me from shining my light, no matter how big or small. *hugs*

  • ss

    You made me cry. Not nice but so great at the same time. Thanks for the shift in my perspective, too.

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful post!! Thank you for sharing this wonderful perspective and insight from your experience! :) So fantastic, I fully agree and so glad you found your authentic creative self to show and be proud of! :)

  • Janet Greenslade

    Thank you for this, today has been a down day, I’ve been looking at my work and thinking “how silly am I thinking I could make an income outta this”, your article has helped and maybe just maybe I can do this =)

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Aw, well, I’m sorry I made you cry, ss… although I also know that crying is one of our body’s natural healing mechanisms, so YAY YOU! :)

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Oh Janet, I hear you! The income thing can feel like such a slog sometimes! Persistence, baby! :)

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Grace, it makes me so sad that you’ve let go of your passions because of the comparison trap.. So have I! :( BUT it makes me so happy to know that you’re ready to just go for it!

    The only green light you need is your own! xom

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Ah, yes, Imposter Syndrome. I know it well! Pssst! Here’s a secret: lots of people feel it! Including lots of your heroes! I guarantee it!

    Somehow, knowing that helps me. Hopefully it will help you, too. :)

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Yes, I think for most of us the comparison trap is a lifelong thing. It never entirely goes away, BUT we can learn to manage it better, and spring ourselves from it more quickly. :)

  • Sarah Somewhere

    Brilliant! I needed this today, thank you!

  • JDO

    Of course everybody is different and has different talents/abilities. but then I think comparisons are natural in some sense. we all do it for good or bad.
    I admit I probably do make comparisons, but then I do so more or less because of feeling denied of opportunities. I’m 34 and only now doing a degree and want to get a PhD soon. However, I kind of feel bad not doing this in my late teens, and felt I missed out a lot on growing up/enjoying youth. I don’t believe in envy, but then I guess resentment is a better term for it.
    That said, I agree generally. I’ll never be as good at football at Ronaldo and don’t care if I’m not, but then I probably have talents he lacks. and yes, there may be some people who compare themselves to me, so I guess the key is to accept everybody has different circumstances, luck (it’s unPC to say but IMO it’s true), talents and even connections. I don’t believe in fate, but then I don’t think humans are owed or entitled to anything in life.

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    Yay! So glad it was helpful, Sarah!

  • Simran Nova

    I needed this! Thank you <3