Mark Twain famously wrote, “Comparison is the death of joy.” We’re constantly told that we should all stop comparing ourselves to others. Sounds great in theory, but how can we do that?
Social comparison has gotten a bad rap. The truth is, comparison is a natural human tendency. It’s one of the ways that we measure ourselves; we try to get a sense of how we are doing against how others are doing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it all depends on how we relate to it. In fact, comparison and jealousy can show you areas where you need to start fully participating in your own life. After all, when you are aligned with your own path and focused on your own life, you no longer look left and right, or second guess yourself.
But most of us use comparison negatively, to only turn on ourselves and feel like we are losing. This addictive pattern can get triggered anytime we see others who have what we think we want. For example, if we’re not in a relationship and see couples around us who look so happy and in love, it’s easy for envious thoughts to come up and to start to believe that we fall short. We undermine ourselves and we feel bad by thinking that we can’t have the things we want.
One option is to observe our envy and use it to dig deeper. We can say to ourselves, “OK, what this person has is something I would really like to manifest in my own life. Now what do I need to affirm or what actions can I take to bring me closer to it?” Ultimately, negative comparison is the lazy man’s approach to life. When you think, “Other people have something and I’ll never get it,” you give yourself permission to not do the inner and outer work required to have it.
If you have a tendency to use comparison to feel like you are somehow losing, you are holding the remote in your hands and you have the ability to change the channel. It’s a choice that’s available to you: You can start, at any moment, to feel like a winner. I was recently listening to a TedTalk by my friend Tristan Harris, an ex-Google employee who founded Time Well Spent, a movement to connect technology with our humanity. Tristan’s findings, and the work of many researchers, have confirmed that social media can amplify negative comparison. So ask yourself, when you’re scrolling through Instagram or Facebook: Are you seeking evidence that everyone else is living a better/happier/more successful life?
The minute we compare ourselves negatively, we reinforce a part of our brains that tells us we are less than or that we are lacking in something. Of course, it’s a part of the human condition to experience the feeling that we are not enough. We are all unique individuals and have our own life path.
Why is this mind-set so hard to break? One reason is that we rarely compare ourselves to the people who have far less than us. But if we want to overcome the negative comparison cycle, the number one tool is what I call “radical gratitude.”
That concept really came into focus for me recently when I was speaking at the World Domination Summit in Portland, a gathering of people from all over the world who are doing good things to help others in their lives. I had the opportunity to hear a fellow speaker, Scott Harrison, the Founder and CEO of charity: water, give an inspiring talk. Scott told story after story about what people have to go through in many parts of the world just to get clean water. Imagine being a mother and having to protect your child from water with leeches and debris in it—water that causes disease and makes people sick and even die.
When we’re redirecting our thoughts from what we lack to what we have, we can start with our most basic needs. Most of us not only have access to clean water, but hot water and cold water—not to mention the many options of bottled, sparkling, or even vitamin water. It may sound simple, but instead remembering that you’re being taken care of in the most fundamental ways can help shift you from “lack” mode.
But we compare ourselves to people who we think have better jobs, better looks, better love relationships, more success. And sometimes we’re right—the grass may be greener on the other side…. but, really, who cares? And more importantly, do you really want to put your energy into what other people have, rather than putting all that focus in creating your own life? Once you start to see the comparison habit as a distraction from your life—and the person you can become—you may feel more willing to redirect your thoughts and focus on your unique gifts.
I was very blessed to be raised by a mother who was so passionate about people standing in their uniqueness. Growing up, I was a terrible student and hated math; I prayed every day that my math teacher would retire. I was only concerned with the arts and going to my dance classes. My sister Arianna, on the other hand, was a brilliant student who got all A’s. School was torturous for me, but instead of comparing me to my sister, my mom would say to me: “We didn’t bring you here for the math, we brought you here for the joy.” Can you believe it?: Years and years later, I would end up writing a book called Wake Up To The Joy Of You. My mother’s point was that we all have our own paths; focusing on your own is the surest way to fulfill your life’s purpose.
When you dwell on what other people have, you’re putting energy into their life and ignoring your own, which derails you from your own destiny. You’re essentially taking the slowest-moving train to your destination—making stops in the village of Self Pity, Doubt, Despair, and Low Self-Worth. Wouldn’t you rather be taking the express Amtrak Acela that puts you full speed toward your own dreams coming true?
As an actress, I suffered from my own form of self-doubt, and I experienced many times the cost of comparison. When another actor got the part, I would be filled with feelings of inadequacy. I would rob myself of my joy and stop looking at other opportunities which didn’t allow me to blossom the way that I was meant to. This unhappiness ultimately led me to a soul-searching path and helped my find my true calling. I had to experience my own value regardless of whether I had an acting career or not.
What we forget during times of comparison is that what is ours will find us if we trust and if we are true to ourselves. If you catch yourself, don’t judge yourself. Observe what is going on and tell yourself “There is that bad habit again.” When you forget this and you fall into the habbit of comparison, you can turn to one of favorite quotes by the Sufi poet Imam al-Shafi’i: “My heart is at ease knowing that what is meant for me will never miss me, and that which misses me was never meant for me.” It’s then that you will know that you will be at peace with who you are and what you have, to create more of what is yours to experience.