The common wisdom that comparison is the thief of joy is not accurate. The problem is not comparison, but what we often attach to comparison.
I’ve been an amateur flying trapeze artist for 15 years, and have been training on trampoline consistently for about 5 years. One of the reasons I love these sports is that they are individually-paced activities done in a group setting. We each have our individual path to progress. Other than the skills needed to qualify to take classes at a certain level, there’s no need to “keep up” or be able to do things the way others do them.
This dynamic allows for community and camaraderie without competition. We work on different tricks and skills, and we can learn from watching others. It’s not a race. We support each other on our individual paths.
Trapeze and trampoline tend to attract those of us with high-achiever mindsets, and even within this dynamic of non-competition, it can be easy to fall into the comparison trap.
The Comparison Trap
The comparison trap is that place we go to when engage in feelings of self-judgment or self-aversion as a result of being compared to others.
Sometimes, we initiate the comparison, such as when I see one of my friends successfully execute a skill that I’ve been struggling with for months or even years.
Sometimes someone else initiates that comparison, such as when your parent tells you to look at what your sibling is doing. Or when a manager points to a colleague’s actions or results as a well-intentioned way to motivate you, or as a way to prove that whatever you feel you are lacking is not really what’s holding you back.
In either case, the result may be that we turn on ourselves and wonder:
What’s wrong with me?
Or we judge ourselves as inferior or not up to the task.
That self-judgment is the trap.
Today I want to share how to escape the trap.
Why “Don’t Compare” Doesn’t Work
First, let’s just acknowledge that we all do this. The most awakened and enlightened people I know engage in comparison.
The standard advice about comparisons is “don’t compare.” I think that’s a nice standard to aim for, and also unrealistic.
Comparison is a Habit
The reason everyone engages in comparison is simple: comparison is a deeply-conditioned habit. We learn how to compare from almost the moment we come into this world.
This shape is like that shape.
This shape is not like that shape.
It’s so built into us to compare. It’s human nature.
To stop comparing requires us to break a habit. And, as I always say, it’s harder to break a habit than create a habit. Especially one that is as deeply embedded as comparison.
It’s not impossible, but it’s far from easy. And I also question whether we would want to break the habit of comparison.
Comparison Serves Us
One often-overlooked truth about breaking habits is that we will not break habits that serve us. And therein lies the challenge with breaking the comparison habit: comparison often serves us.
Comparison is often useful.
Comparison helps us make sense of unfamiliar situations. It’s how we give ourselves context and understand how things fit into the world.
It’s our process for understanding how we fit into the world.
Comparison can show us the gap between where we are and what might be possible for us. We can see skills we may want to improve or learn.
It can also show us where we have made progress towards our desired results.
In so many ways, comparison can be necessary and useful.
Good luck trying to break a habit that serves you on so many levels.
Comparison itself isn’t the problem
Comparison itself isn’t always the problem. (Sometimes it is, but more on that another time.)
The problem is when we use comparison as a basis to judge where we are in our process or skill development relative to others.
Comparison is also a problem when we use it as an implicit or explicit judgment of others, or as a basis on which to invalidate our needs or another persons needs.
The problem with comparison is not the comparison itself, but the judgment that comes out of it.
Here are a few examples to cement the distinction.
Necessary and Useful Comparisons
Today in trampoline practice I watched my friend Derek executing skills that I haven’t yet learned. He’s only been doing this for about a year; I’ve been practicing trampoline for several years. It would be easy for me to fall into that place of “he’s only been doing this for a year and look how adept he is already, and why don’t I have those skills yet?”
The comparison itself is useful in that it shows me more skills to develop. That last part — why don’t I have those skills yet? — is the self-judgement that is the problem of comparison.
We’re not in competition. In fact, we learn together and from each other. It’s one of my favorite things about the circus community in every location where I’ve trained: the camaraderie and collaboration.
The trap from which we want to escape is the judgement.
Unnecessary and Harmful Comparison
In contrast, imagine a situation where you ask for support from your boss or manager and in response your manager tells you: “Look at Jim. He is doing great things and doesn’t need that support.”
This is a place where comparison is neither necessary nor useful. This type of comparison almost always comes across as
Why can’t you be more like X?
It reinforces the feeling of “not enoughness” that is one of our most elemental fears. In addition, it invalidates our needs.
It’s not only a judgment on you, but it invites you to judge yourself. You begin to wonder, what’s wrong with me?
This scenario is the one place where I agree with the advice to “stop making comparisons.” It is uncalled for and harmful here. (More on that another time.)
How to Escape the Comparison Trap
So, if comparison is a habit that is hard to break, and if it serves us, how do we escape the comparison trap?
Start with these 3 steps:
Step 1: Create awareness
The first step to changing anything is to bring awareness to it. Begin to notice when you are making a comparison — and whether it’s necessary and useful or unnecessary and harmful.
Notice where you compare yourself to others, and yourself to yourself. Also notice things outside yourself that you compare: experiences, meals, the time it took to do something, the weather.
The more you can notice the everyday, harmless comparisons, the more you will notice the harmful comparisons.
Step 2: Reframe comparison as a learning tool
Release the judgment and use comparison to identity areas for growth.
Instead of using comparison as a basis for judgment, use it as a basis for learning.
That’s how we use it as children. We see differences and we learn.
This shape is like these shapes.
This shape is not like these other shapes.
So when you notice you are comparing yourself to someone else, instead of asking a version of “what’s wrong with me?” ask “what can I learn here?”
Step 3: Remember: each of us has our own path
Just because someone is doing something and getting results, and the results look like the results you desire, doesn’t’ mean that the methods that person is using will work for you. Each of us has our own path.
My trampoline coach coaches me based on my strengths and abilities, and coaches other students to their specific strengths and abilities.
We all eventually learn the same skills through different paths, depending on our background. My trapeze coaches take the same approach.
Circus is Life. This same approach goes for life and business. Each of us has different needs, abilities, and strengths. We have unique values and beliefs that will naturally shape our process.
There is not “one way” that works for everyone. You are on your own path, and will get to your destination in your own timing.
When you release the judgment connected to comparison, you will find the freedom to enjoy the journey.
Do you find yourself in the comparison trap? How do you escape the trap? Please share your strategies in the comments.
I spoke about this issue in Episode 71 of My Circus Life, a weekly livestream in which I share a lesson from my circus activities and how it applies to life and business.