“The heart is like a garden: it can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love. What seeds will you plant there?” ~Jack Kornfield
Comparison is something we all struggle with at one point or another. Although it’s something that conventional self-help wisdom urges us to avoid, it’s also a way of gauging where we fit in the world.
Usually, when we engage in comparison, we do so from an ego-based perspective and find ourselves (or others) lacking. This approach doesn’t benefit anyone involved, but, until recently, this was my predominant experience of comparison.
I also had the belief that healthy people don’t compare themselves to other people, so I would judge myself harshly when I noticed I was doing so.
So I struggled, first to stop comparing myself to other people, then, as I shifted my focus to self-acceptance and self-kindness, to accept the fact that this is something I do and that judging myself for this doesn’t help.
Are you focusing on the facts, or the meanings you attach to the facts?
Through my experiences, I’ve realized that it’s not so much the comparison itself that is unhelpful, but how I approach it. The act of comparison isn’t the problem; it’s the meaning we attach to what we find.
When I notice that I’m comparing myself to other people, I have a choice: do I use this comparison as a tool for positive change, or a tool for self-destruction?
Comparison as a Tool for Growth and Inspiration
This question came up recently when I was talking with a couple of friends about how things were going in our respective businesses. One of them shared that she had just had her best month yet and earned more than ever before. In that moment, I was simultaneously happy for her and deeply envious.
I had been working really hard and, although I felt good about how things were going, I compared how much I was earning to how much she was earning and found myself falling seriously short.
On an intellectual level, I rationalized that money wasn’t everything, but on an emotional level I entered a comparison-based downward spiral. I started questioning what I was doing wrong, feeling self-doubt, and digging myself into a pit that left me with a general sense that I wasn’t “enough.”
I recognized that this wasn’t serving me and spoke to my coach about the experience. When I explained that I couldn’t even imagine making that much and that I was wondering how she had done that herself, he asked, “Did you ask her?”
As soon as he asked the question, it seemed like such an obvious thing to do. But I hadn’t—because I had felt ashamed. In that moment, my ego-based comparison had robbed me of the opportunity to learn, to be inspired, and to grow.
And that, I’ve realized, is the choice we face. When we compare ourselves to others, it’s usually because they have something, are doing something, or being something that we want to have, do, or be.
When we notice that, and notice that uncomfortable feeling of envy arising, we have a decision to make: We can beat ourselves up over the gap between where we are and where they are, or we can ask ourselves: “What is this comparison telling me about what I’m wanting/needing right now?” and “What can I learn from this person to get myself closer to where I want to be?”
One of these options is based on ego gratification and external validation; the other is based on self-compassion and a desire to live the best life we can.
Making this choice isn’t necessarily easy to do in the moment, but it is possible.
Viewing comparison as an opportunity is an act of self-kindness. It lifts the burden of “not enough” and provides a chance for growth and connection—especially if the person you’re comparing yourself to is someone you can reach out to and ask, “Hey, I’d love to be able to do that; do you have any advice to share?”
Perhaps one day I will realize that I no longer compare myself to other people. In the meantime, however, I’m learning to accept that this is something I do and finding ways to use is as a force for positive change.
How do you deal with comparison in your life?
Photo by Christian Haugen