I’m heading to my 15-year class reunion at Stanford this weekend. I’m excited to see some old friends, spend time on campus, and attend the various parties, sporting events, and fun stuff planned for the weekend. At the same time, I’m feeling quite anxious about the whole experience – knowing how easy it can be for me, especially in that environment, to get caught in a pattern of negative comparison.
As I looked through our 15-year reunion class book a few weeks ago (a book where fellow classmates submit a page with an update on their lives), I got a sick feeling in my stomach as the little voice in my head started saying things to me like, “Look how much more successful he is than you,” or “That person looks exactly the same as they did in school, they haven’t aged a bit…unlike you,” or “They seem to have things figured out, you clearly don’t,” and more.
Sadly, many of us spend and waste lots of time and energy comparing ourselves to others. Often times we end up feeling inferior to people based on our own self judgment and hyper criticalness. However, we also may find ourselves feeling superior to some of the people around us, based on certain aspects of our lives and careers we think are going well and/or the specific struggles of the people in our lives. Reunions (as well as things like Facebook, holiday letters, and more) can can often highlight or intensify this phenomenon.
This comparison game is almost always a trap because whether we feel “less than” someone else or “better than” another person, we’re stuck in a negative loop. This is the same coin – heads we “win” and think we’re better and tails we “lose” and think we’re worse. In addition to comparing ourselves to other people, we also compare ourselves to ourselves from the past (something I’ve been noticing as I get ready for this weekend’s reunion). One of the most negative thoughts and biggest fears that I allow to take away my power in life is, “I’m not as good as I used to be.”
All of this is an insatiable ego game that sets us up to lose. Comparison leads to jealousy, anxiety, judgment, criticism, separation, loneliness, and more. It’s normal for us to compare ourselves to others (and to our past selves) – especially given the nature of how most of us were raised and the competitive culture in which we live. However, negative comparison can have serious consequences on our self esteem, our relationships, our work, and our overall experience of life.
The irony is that almost everyone feels inferior in certain ways, and we often erroneously think that if we just made more money, lost some weight, had more friends, got a better job, moved into a nicer place, had more outward “success”, found the “perfect” partner (or changed our partner into that “perfect” person), or whatever – than these insecure and unhealthy feelings of inferior/superior comparison would simply go away. Not true.
How we can transform our negative comparison process into an experience of growth, connection, and self acceptance (and ultimately let it go) is by dealing with it directly and going to the source – us and how we relate to ourselves.
Here are some things you can do to unhook yourself from negative comparison:
1) Have empathy and compassion for yourself. When we notice we’re comparing ourselves to other people (or to our past self) and we start feeling either inferior or superior, it’s essential to have a deep sense of compassion and empathy for ourselves. Comparison almost always comes from a place of insecurity and fear, not of deficiency or mal-intent. Judging ourselves as “less than” someone else or judging ourselves for going into comparison mode in the first place (which many of us do once we become aware of our tendency to do this), doesn’t help. In fact, this judgment causes more harm and keeps us stuck in the negative pattern.
2) Use comparison as an opportunity to accept, appreciate, and love yourself. When negative comparison shows up, there is usually a lack of acceptance, appreciation, and love for ourselves. Instead of feeling bad about what we think is wrong with us or critical of ourselves for being judgmental, what if we took this as a cue to take care of and nurture ourselves in an authentic way? Comparison is a cry for us to accept and appreciate ourselves. If we listen to this important message and heed it, we can liberate ourselves from the negative pattern of comparison.
3) Be willing to admit your own jealousy. One of the best ways to release something is to admit it (i.e. “tell on yourself”). While this can be a little scary and vulnerable to do, when we have the courage to admit our own jealousy, we can own it in a way that is liberating to both us and other people. Acknowledging the fact that we feel jealous of another person’s success, talents, accomplishments, or qualities is a great way to let go of it and to remove the barrier we may feel with that person or experience. If you find yourself jealous of someone you don’t know (like a celebrity or just someone you haven’t met personally), you can acknowledge these feelings to someone close to you or even in a meditation with an image of that actual person.
4) Acknowledge the people you compare yourself to. Another great way to break through the negative impact of comparing ourselves to others is to reach out to them with some genuine appreciation. I am planning to do this all weekend at my reunion. The more excited we’re willing to get for other people’s success, talents, qualities, and experiences – the more likely we are to manifest positive feelings and outcomes in our own lives. There is not a finite amount of success or fulfillment – and when we acknowledge people we compare ourselves to, we remind ourselves that there is more than enough to go around and that we’re capable of experiencing and manifesting wonderful things in our own life as well.