“Comparison is the death of joy.” ~Mark Twain
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to keep my eyes on my own paper.
Which was basically just a suggestion to stop looking outside myself for constant validation and to start doing the hard work of figuring out who I was and who I wanted to become instead of expecting someone else to give me all the answers.
Most of us feel this innate pull to compare ourselves to others at every turn.
We compare our careers and our incomes and our homes and our relationships and our bodies and our diets and pretty much everything in between. And then we judge ourselves — and others — based upon how we decide we stack up next to all the other people whose lives we are using as a measuring stick for our own.
This habit of constant comparing is not helpful. It demands that someone always come out on top and someone inevitably fall to the bottom, creating baseless hierarchies, and defining us as winners and losers without making space for all the nuances of existence between these two extremes.
This is not good. If you decide you’re inferior (i.e. less successful, less wealthy, less thin, less strong, less happy, less able to control yourself around cookies), you feel worse about yourself. And if you decide you’re the winner in a certain category of comparison, your ego is all Hell, yeah! but your self-worth is then situated atop a pile of fabricated bullshit about your better-ness.
Both scenarios have less than ideal endings.
Because when you build confidence in yourself based on a bunch of better-thans or worse-thans, you are basically outsourcing your identity and sense of self-worth to everyone around you instead of doing the actual work of learning how to understand and like and appreciate who you are on a fundamental level.
Also: Playing the comparison game isn’t so great for fostering healthy relationships. Because it’s hard to create real connection and intimacy with others when you’re busy jostling for position in all sorts of arbitrarily-defined categories of successful life-living.
And I would know. Because I did that myself for YEARS.
Not with every person in my life and not in every situation, but quite frequently. And this habit of constantly searching for my place in the hierarchy of human existence certainly wasn’t helpful for cultivating new friendships or more deeply connecting with the people who were already in my life at that point.
People I often secretly admired even while I was busy doing the undercover comparison dance in effort to see how I stacked up next to them as a whole.
In recent years, I have been able to decrease the impact of this comparison-making instinct on my overall level of contentment and my sense of self-worth, having grown more aware of what triggers me to start comparing and to identify those times I have unconsciously traveled too far down the comparison path in order to stop all movement in this direction before it gains too much momentum and becomes nearly impossible to derail.
Doing so has been life-changing. It has enabled me to see myself through a more compassionate lens and to feel more consistently tuned into my own inherent worth regardless of what anyone around me is doing or has done.
Consciously eliminating this need to constantly compare myself to other people has allowed me to see others more clearly as well, my perception no longer muddied by my need for validation or by my fear that I am somehow less valuable as a human simply because some certain aspect of my life doesn’t look the way it does for someone else in theirs.
Do I sometimes still get caught in the comparison trap? Of course. But I am able to more quickly pull myself out of this mindset and figure out what is really going on before it gets out of hand and puts a wrench in my relationships or interferes with my feelings of contentment about my life.
Knowing my values and cultivating compassion for the path I have traveled thus far have been two of the most valuable tools I have discovered in my efforts to stop comparing myself to everyone around me and to start understanding my self-worth as an inherent truth that doesn’t require any external markers of so-called success to be validated.
I won’t pretend to understand the unknowable, overarching why of human existence, but I do believe we are here to be of service.
And I do believe that consciousness is inherently self-reflective and that if we sidestep this truth in an effort to avoid hardship or pain or the sometimes tedium of self-discovery, we are missing out on much of what this life has to offer.
Comparison is more than just a joy-killer (as they say). I believe it feeds egoism and narcissism and contributes to a view of the world that relies on hierarchies and requires that somebody always come out on top.
If your contentment and satisfaction with your life is based upon the fact that you are winning in the comparison game — be that in your career or your bank account balance or your relationship status or your physical appearance — I would argue that your contentment is a complete fabrication and that it is more fragile than you might imagine.
And while you might buy into it entirely and fail to see the cracks in its foundation, your identity and sense of self-worth will always be vulnerable to forces outside your control unless you do the work of cultivating confidence and belief in your value as a human that doesn’t depend on someone else’s faltering or failure to remain true and intact.
That is an ugly, unsustainable way to live, if you ask me.
I have lived ugly and unsustainably. Sometimes for years at a time.
I recommend not doing that. I recommend keeping your eyes on your own paper whenever possible. Compare notes with your friends if it helps. But don’t decide on your worth in this world by looking at how closely your life aligns with the made-up story sold to us about how success looks and what success wears and where success lives.
And don’t define yourself by another person’s values. Do the sometimes frustrating work of discovering your own.
It will be worthwhile. I promise.