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How to Use Comparisons for Growth Instead of Feeling Inferior

Two Dancing Girls

“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

About Hannah Braime

Hannah Braime is a coach and writer who believes the world is a richer place when we have the courage to be fully self-expressed. She shares practical psychology-based articles, tools and resources on living a full and meaningful life over at Becoming Who You Are. Get free access to workbooks, audios and much more when you join the community.

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  • Wonderful article. I’ve been doing exactly what you suggest for about fourteen years now, and it has shifted my life in dramatic and beautiful ways. I rarely feel envy anymore. Usually I feel thrilled for other people’s success, and view it as proof that whatever they’ve accomplished is possible, which means I can do it, too!

    With this shift, I’ve also discovered that most of the highly successful people I know are quite generous and forthright about sharing information to help others achieve their goals. This is in direct opposition to what I imagined in my envious days. What a pleasant surprise. 🙂

  • Noctu Sova

    The person I have a crush on sends my comparing habit on a loopy roller coaster!
    We have so many.common interests and artistic aspirations.
    But we only communicate well through text, on person its an emotional disaster, I can’t stop worrying about if we have the same feelings.

    Do I abandon them if they won’t give me an answer or just keep trying?

    It’s been about a year since we met, but I feel the same even though we hardly text or see each other.

    I know I we owe eachothr nothing but even bad feeling encounters make me grow as a person and come out of my shell a little.

    Seeing their art makes me develope mine even though we have completely different styles and mediums.

    Now if they happen to be part of a show is it okay to just go watch them?

  • Great article, Hannah. I know exactly what you mean about using envy to motivate you. I found myself envying some social entrepreneurs who managed to get a list of big names and prominent business schools to support a mentoring project they had created. But as I asked how they had done it, I realised it was because they believed they could. they had just asked the big names and had got the answer yes! So, as I am developing my own social enterprise I have been asking some important people to help me out, and getting lots of positive responses.

    Yesterday evening I set myself a new challenge. I am writing a list of 100 prominent people who might be able to help promote the website and create great content. Each week I am going to contact 10 of them and ask for their help. I am expecting most of them to say no. But after all, I only need one to say yes to make a big difference.

    The other thing that helps me is that the social enterprise is bigger than me in its purpose. It requires me to step up. This is not about self-abnegation. I am not sacrificing myself to the cause. On the contrary, because the cause is so important, I have to grow to meet the challenge. It just won’t to to sit back and complain. And in the process I learn what I am capable of.

    Like envy, fear can show you a path. What are you scared of? Being told no? Why does that matter? Because this is important to you. So, tap into that desire, that importance and use it as fuel to do it despite the fear (and, oh boy, the fear is still real!)

    Thanks for the article. Really appreciated its message.

  • DE

    I think, self love and accepting the way you are the key to avoid comparison and be happy. Everybody is unique on this earth and there is no need to follow all the standard benchmarking such as how much money you have, what good job you have, how good the marriage or relationship etc.

  • I love this. I am obviously guilty of comparison too, but I’m slowly learning that by comparing myself, my subconscious is telling me something important about my desires. It’s interesting how instead of asking for help or guidance towards realizing our desires, we let them fester and sometimes come to resent those we compared ourselves to. Thank you for sharing this

  • Thanks Mariel! I’m glad to hear it resonated and I love what you said about your subconscious telling you important information about your desires. “Why?” is such a powerful question!

  • Great point DE; it’s up to us as individuals to discover what really matters to us and focus on our own path. We can learn from others, but do so while keeping sight of our own values and purpose.

  • Wow Devi, love the commitment to action! You highlight something really important: if we want something, it’s up to us to seek it (rather than waiting for it to land in our laps).

    I appreciate you sharing your experience around focusing on the bigger purpose too. I’ve found that when I feel insecure about the way things are going in my own life or business it’s because I’m making it all about me and thinking from the perspective of my (potentially bruised) ego, rather than thinking about the people who really matter: clients and community.

    I wish you all the best with your enterprise—it sounds like you’ve laid a strong foundation for making it happen 🙂

  • Yes Mani, fabulous point! I used to view my asking for help as a burden and imposition on other people. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve started working on projects where I’ve needed to ask questions or make requests, and it’s been paradigm-shifting to see that (most) people actually love the chance to help. It’s very life-affirming—and gratifying to know that we can do the same and help others in turn 🙂

  • Great write-up, Hannah.

    Yeah, there’s this debate going on whether we should compare for growth or don’t compare at all. I think it’s best to pick one based on the things you are comparing.

    Have a genetic disease that limits your intelligence? Don’t compare yourself with those smarter than you because you can’t do anything about your disease. Better to focus on other things.

    Your peers climbing the career ladder faster than you? Compare yourself with them. Find the gaps present in you, whether it’s knowledge, relationships, etc, and ask them how they did it. That’s better than wallowing about your slowness in advancing in your carrer.

  • krutika

    nicely written . Actually you should never compared yourself with other people they are different in their way and you are different in your way so it does not help it just makes you think that you are not perfect . 🙂

  • Talya Price

    Oh man did this hit home with me. I have been dealing with comparing myself with other people. I looks at other people, and wonder why do they get the role in the big commercial and I don’t. Why are they successful at every casting that they attend and I am not. Why are they in a relationship and I am not. Why are they having sex and I am not. Why do they get to travel and I do not. All of these things have been consuming my every thought. And I hate it. I hate where I am geographically, I am tired of being single, I feel lonely, very lonely. I feel that no one really understands me. And I sometimes feel that my career is going nowhere, just a continuing cycle. And I am sick of it. I am sick of feeling this way.

    I have been trying to figure out why I feel this way. I know it all started when my friend told me that she was moving to Berlin. And for some reason since she told me this I have been avoiding her. I have been keeping mostly to myself and just going day to day with my work. I am jealous of her, really jealous of her. I am also jealous of the 2 actors I worked with who are getting more work than I am. And because of this I feel depressed. And I have no one to talk to about this, because both of my friends are too busy with their own lives, one is moving to Berlin the other is joined at the hip to her boyfriend.

    So that is my story. Thank you for sharing your story, Hannah.

  • Mindfulness

    Hey Talya 🙂
    I too, compare myself with the succes of other people, a whole lot. I have always wanted to be liked and not have any enemies whatsoever, but my ego tells me that i have to do so much more than that :p And then the struggle arises, me vs myself :p I just wanted to let you know that even though it sometimes feels as if no one understands you, some people do have empathy for you 🙂 If we struck conversation in some random place and you told me about this I would, without a doubt, sit down and talk with you, since strangers really can help turn one’s view on things around (in a good way) :p Well, I sincerely hope that you find your way, and i really recommend checking back on tinybuddha from time to time 🙂
    Best of luck and warm hugs 😀

  • Talya Price

    Thank you for your response. I have been thinking long and hard about my life since returning from Amsterdam.I am trying to find my way. I have been depressed since my return. And I have been facing those demons head on, that is the only way I can get through this. Thank you again for responding, sometimes I think that no one really cares or no one really understands. But then The Universe sends me a reminder of how wrong I am and that there are always someone struggling or who know about struggling. Thank you. 🙂

  • When someone triggers envy or jealousy out of me, I remind myself that it’s a younger part of me that has been triggered that remembers a painful experience from growing up.

    That experience of the prettier girl getting the hot guy, the experience of the “it” girls calling me humiliating names, the experience of being rejected by the “rich” sorority girls and feeling not enough.

    So whenever I feel the comparison coming on, I access that little girl inside of me and tell her that it’s going to be okay – we’re not in high school anymore. Appreciate and love the other person and learn from them.

  • alek

    I can’t really think about times when I’d stop comparing myself to other people – because the whole life is all about growing and evolving.
    But the point here is wonderful and… yeah, obvious! Thanks!

  • Thanks for the warm words, Hannah. It sounds like you are someone who goes out and seeks things too. I guess a bruised ego is inevitable sometimes, but doesn’t kill us, however unconfortable it feels.

  • claire

    how are you doing now tayla? x