The Suffering of Comparison

Apr 14, 2023 5 Min Read
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Photo by Dietmar Becker @ unsplash

"We can choose actions that put a pin in the ballooning comparison in our minds."

There’s a pair of geese that live in a small pond behind our house, and I've been making up a story about them since the day they showed up. I hold an image in my head of a sweet little goose couple bonded together and happy as can be. I watch them flying, fishing, and eating—and in my mind, I assume a level of inner-goose peace and contentment to match what I see.

One day as the geese flew overhead and announced their arrival, an unexpected thought popped into my head: What if I’ve made all of this up? What if they have a terrible relationship, think a raven’s life would be more exciting, or dream longingly of Canada? The truth is that by observing their outsides, I know nothing about their insides.

gray-and-black mallard ducks flying during day time

We have this tendency to idealise others’ lives, be they fowl, friends, or colleagues. The very platforms where we digitally network and interact are designed for this kind of projection. (Don’t take that personally, LinkedIn, it’s the inherent design of all social media—especially where people congregate to advance their careers and companies.) We post what’s smart, impressive, and noteworthy about us. We appear in two-dimensional well-lit headshots and edit our thoughts before sharing them. The ability to choose the impression we make adds up. Our baser selves and our frailties are nowhere to be seen.

A smiling headshot in a purposefully designed, public-facing brand doesn’t exempt people from the mixed bag of life experiences that you see so clearly in your own stories. Even “authentic” stories of failures, anxieties, and upheavals are usually not the whole story. (If I’ve ever been a person you assume to have a blessed life—or that I have it all figured out—you should know that there are private struggles you don’t know about and that I won’t share.) And this is true for everyone we admire.

Of course, you know this already. Yet this intellectual knowledge does not protect us from the visceral hit of better-than and less-than wherever we look.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy.” The Buddhists call this “the suffering of comparison.” 

Pick your quote—they all say the same thing and concurrently imply the universality of this mental slip. But it can be worked on. We can choose actions that put a pin in the ballooning comparison in our minds. Try some of these techniques.

Imagine trading places:

Look at the person you are comparing yourself to, and imagine trading your life for theirs—100 percent wholeheartedly. Yes, you will get all the goodies you can see on the outside, but you may get all sorts of hidden mold and trapdoors you can’t see. You also have to give up your basket of truths: all of them. You need to give up your family, talents, experiences, and future, and you need to never remember them. If you imagine truly making the jump, you may have a different perception of your life’s tally sheet overall.

Find the truth beneath it all: 

Ask people who have an enviable glow or shine of success what it is really like for them on the inside. Along with their achievements, you will hear about self-doubt, divorces, mistakes, depression, bankruptcies, and imposter syndrome mixed in among all the good things. With few exceptions, the raw state of people is vulnerable and soft. The pandemic broke our ability to be fake in many ways. We simply became too tired for artifice, and people began to let more of their truths out. It’s a good time to ask ourselves for the rest of the story—the whole story, not just the sparkly one we can see.

Practice micro-gratitude: 

When my kids were younger, we had a family meeting every weekend, and each of us had to end our share with one “grateful.” When they struggled to find something, the problem was clear. They always tried to find a "grateful" that was too big. I coached them to go small: the nice thing another kid said to them, finding leftover shepherd’s pie in the fridge when they thought there was none, or sinking the eight ball. Making note of your own small "gratefuls" will put the focus on the positive things in your own life in a doable way while also interrupting your comparison thought loop.

Use your envy as a compass:

Sometimes we are so busy and addled by technology that we can’t feel our inner compass, and we don’t know what we really want. Here is a shortcut to re-establishing contact. Just look at what you envy, and follow it like a map. That place—that thing or feeling—is what you want, or you would not yearn for it so. Flip the story, and let your sense of comparison and even jealousy serve you. Follow the envy. Maybe it sparks you to work harder on your business. Maybe it helps you work out when you don’t want to in the wake of its pull. Envy can fire us up.

Whatever is going on in your work and life right now, take a minute to let yourself be with the geese on the pond, the goodness in your life, and the small “gratefuls” around you right now. The human tendency to compare will never leave us, but we can stop letting it become our primary gear. Instead, we can put our attention and mental spotlight on our own progress and, by using comparison as a tool for growth, reach new levels of success.

 

This article is also available in Chinese.

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.
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