One of our flagship qualities as human beings is our advanced neocortex; our ability to think in abstractions and hypotheses, to assume, then gauge our own assumptions — and, not least to compare. And sure, they are indeed advanced features. And they are helpful, too. At least some of the time.
The problem with all these advanced functioning is that the ego tends to employ them a bit over-enthusiastically, and when self-comparison is concerned, this is certainly the case. Actually, taking inventory of what I’ve found in myself, clients and course-participants over the years, I counted four different ways we compare ourselves, to our own disadvantage. These form four separate traps that we tend to step into, sometimes by mistake, sometimes by design, in the misguided belief that they will help us become better people. Let’s look at them one by one.
(If you were drawn to the concept of comparison itself and expected to read about it from an Enneagram perspective, that’s not what this post is about. However, you might find what you’re looking for in “Threes typically compare”, “No it’s fours that do that” — zooming out to understand type descriptions.)
Trap #1: Comparing yourself with media personalities
These are the images we are constantly bombarded with from the outside: post-processed photographs in magazines, people styled and made-up to be on TV, people in commercials, people in TV-shows or film productions, people on social media. When an image flows past in the general buzz, they are almost always touched up in ways that make us look shabbier. In drama, comedies, or action productions, the characters are often smart, witty, with the perfect come-back at the right time (not to mention the perfect lighting and possibly a personal make-up artist). They hit the dustbin flawlessly with their crumbled-up sheet of paper that they cockily just threw in that direction. And the fact that there’s likely a whole team of writers racking their brains to come up with the sparkling repartee might not occur to us — or at least it doesn’t right when we compare ourselves to the characters or even actors and consider ourselves lacklustre, stupid or tragically uncreative. But what we see is edited and directed, and the perfect throw might be the forth (or fortieth) take of that scene.
When we see people on social media, we might think it’s different, as these are actual people, not made-up characters who wake up will full make-up and never take a dump. But there, too, what we see is obviously what the person chose to show off. We didn’t get to see their quarrel with the kids just before, or taking their gastritis pills or search for the perfect selfie-angle for halv a hour before snapping the shot.
Another tricky thing with these images and posts, whether they portray made-up or “authentic” people, is that for some of us, they might also constitute the majority of the people that we actually encounter that day. The touched-up version of reality gets more “normal” than actual reality. And obviously, this is something to be mindful of — not least if we catch ourselves comparing ourselves to them.
Trap #2: Comparing your performance to what you intended (but believing you are comparing it to the performance of others)
Ok, so this one has a twist. But, you know when you compare yourself to others in your life — such as friends, colleagues, or family members? Let’s say you and a colleague each gave a presentation at work, or got to meet the new boss. When you compare yourself to your colleague afterwards, you might feel that the things he said made so much more sense than your contribution. On top of that, he didn’t seem to be anywhere near as nervous as you. His presentation was coherent and fluid, he seemed in balance, and so on, and so forth. As for you, maybe you forgot a good chunk of what you wanted to say, not to mention those nerves. Ergo: you lose, big time.
However the thing is, what you are comparing isn’t really the his presentation vs your own; what you are comparing is your own presentation vs the presentation you had planned, and how you saw it going in your head. But that’s just because you don’t have access to what he had planned. Maybe he forgot half of what he was going to say, too. How would you know? Nor do you know how he felt doing it. Those things don’t show much on the outside (despite what we might think when it’s us doing the presentation) — which means your nerves probably wasn’t visible on the outside, either.
Sometimes we talk about “comparing your own insides to other’s outsides”, and this is the same dynamic. The inside, whether yours or that of the other, will always be messier, more multi-faceted and more complicated than anything that we can see on the outside.
Trap #3: Comparing yourself to “everyone else”
This is a favourite for many of us, at least from time to time. “Everybody else has/can/wants/does/thinks …” We excel at comparing ourselves with these faceless, illusive others. But interestingly, nobody has ever encountered them in real life. “Everyone else” only exist in our imagination, and at the point in time when we decide to compare ourselves to them, they possess a perfect selection of enviable traits which we have observed in a few of the other billions of co-occupants here on Earth (or even in some of the fictional characters that we just talked about in the first trap).
For this simple reason, if the ego or superego is out to find fault with us, we always fall short in the comparison with “everyone else”. They are just a fabricated blend of qualities that we envy and fancy ourselves missing.
Trap #4: Comparing yourself to other versions of yourself
The first three traps are sneaky enough, but they’re also relatively easy to spot and see through. We don’t need to step into heavy introspection to recognize that it’s hard to make a just comparison between ourselves and others (especially “others” that don’t actually exist!). But comparing myself to myself — surely, that is good and healthy?
Well. Sure, it can be. If I’m an athlete and I want to beat my own personal best, this is obviously how to go about it, and it’s likely to be much more productive than comparing my results to others’ on a daily basis.
But when we’re talking more generally about our everyday lives, it’s often as stressful and unhelpful to make comparisons with versions of ourselves, regardless if this version is a our idea for the future or a previous (meaning, younger) me.
Comparing with what I aim towards
Often, we compare ourselves to what we think we should be like, how far ahead we think we should be by now, how much we should have understood, how often we should so yoga or exercise or clean out the fridge. You might notice that this is akin to comparing yourself to others. The future, imagined you doesn’t exist yet, after all — or, at least, doesn’t exist yet — and telling yourself you should be different right now than you are right now can only be stressful. Sure, stress can spur us on, but it’s still stressful.
Comparing with “how I used to be”
But how I used to be, then? Surely that is OK? And well, anything is OK, obviously; I’m not saying how you should live, after all. I’m just summarising my observations. And here, I ask you to summarise yours: How does it make you feel to compare yourself to how you used to be?
When we compare ourselves to a previous version of ourselves, we remember the past. We might recall a time when we felt more energetic, idealistic or unafraid. And sure — we might have been just like what we’re remembering — but also, it’s likely that we weren’t all those things simultaneously, let alone all the time. Since we were younger, in all likelihood we were also more naïve, more prone to jumping to conclusions, perhaps worrying or feeling bad about stuff unnecessarily and got into more conflicts with others and/or ourselves that we since learned to avoid on account of, simply, more life experience.
But naturally, we aren’t pining for the bad stuff, so those are subtly edited out of what we think back to — only to feel bad that we aren’t the same any longer.
Self-improvement, goals, and aspirations
Having goals in the first place is a lot like comparing, isn’t it. So shouldn’t we set goals? Again, I’m not here to say; some of us like goals as challenges, some not so much — it’s all down to personal preferences. But if you feel that negative comparisons might feature in your life more than not, what I might suggest, though, is that you take a closer look at the habitual comparisons you are making. Ask yourself whether they actually bring peace or stress. If you do visualisations or whatever when you picture yourself having and being things that you aren’t currently having or being, and if this feels life-affirming and joyful to you, please enjoy. But if you identify habitual comparisons that actually rather brings a sense of stress, of not-quite-there-yet-so-I-need-to-apply-myself — and even more, if this has faded into a dull backdrop to most of your life — you might want to take a gentle look at how you are treating yourself.
After all, the oak doesn’t believe it should be elegant, thorny or flowering like a rose bush; nor does the rose bush feel inadequate because it’s not as tall or imposing as the oak. That’s us, all of us: are oaks and rose bushes — and lilies and dandelions and pines and cherry trees and all of the rest of this marvellous creation. Don’t spoil your uniqueness on trying to be someone else.
The way out
I want to say it again: of course, comparing as such isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, when we want to evaluate a certain way of handling something, comparing how it used to be and how it is now is our only way of knowing whether what we’re doing has the intended effect. But this post isn’t about that sort of comparing. It’s about traps — thought loops that we slide into, that are stressful and cause suffering (while dressed up as constructive and motivating, even) and, most of all, quite pointless.
Often, we believe that our negative self-comparisons, subtle as they may be, and the sense of discomfort that they give rise to will push us into living closer to the life we want, the one we had planned or what we hoped for. Sometimes they might, and some of those times we might even consider it worth the discomfort. But in most cases I’ve come across, that’s not the case. Rather, the comparing is an unhelpful, superego-powered habit, and one that most of us would benefit from cutting down on.
Just like other imbalanced expressions of our three centres, the cure obviously starts with learning to recognize when we’ve walked into a trap. When we do, we can take a tiny step back and notice which one of the traps above we seem to have got stuck in. We might reflect on whether it’s a common one for us, or if this was a more unusual ego move. We can become curious researchers in our own, inner archaeology.
And as usual, the curious exploration starts with us stopping, perhaps closing our eyes, take a couple of breaths that are slightly deeper than usual, sense into the body and our connection to whatever we’re standing, sitting, or lying on. Here and now. The question What’s my experience right now? is always, always more useful than the comparison traps ❤️