Flipping the script on comparison
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Despite it being a huge, helpful part of our day, I think comparison on the whole gets a bad rep.
I bet, wherever you are now you’ve already had comparison as part of your day.
For example, you wake up at night, frustrated. Maybe it’s the tenth time you’ve woken up, maybe your joints ache, maybe the kids got you up, maybe you’re on medication that disrupts your sleep. You’re frustrated. But why? Because you know the other option to your situation is to be sleeping soundly. You have something to compare a bad night’s sleep to - a great night’s sleep. When you open your eyes in the morning and you don’t want to get out of your warm cocoon, it’s because you have two options, stay in it but be less productive that day, or leave it and go to work as you’re supposed to. You compare them both and weigh up the benefits vs the desire and make a choice. Maybe you look in the mirror and maybe it’s not what you hoped to see, because some feature or part of you isn’t perfect in the way you want - why? Because you’ve seen a better shaped nose, bigger eyes, smoother hair, less moles, better features on someone else, so you compare the two. The list goes on…
Comparison is a huge part of our day. A necessary part. It’s how we work out what to buy, what to eat, what to wear, where to go. Yes, they’re just decisions but they’re often made based on comparing the options in front of us. And on the whole that’s not a bad thing.
So where did it go so wrong? To get such a bad press?
Well, I believe social media has opened up a world of hurt when it comes to comparison - we compare our lives to what someone else portrays on a social media feed, with no clue if it even slightly reflects their reality.
This is where the danger with comparison comes in. We’re not comparing like-for-like situations. It’s like pitting a banana against a unicorn.
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. Steven Furtick
Let’s face it, we've all unfollowed or become obsessed over social media feeds that make us feel bad, and then we direct our hurt, shortcomings or anger at someone else's images or words, blaming them for how we feel and interpreting their behaviour as intentionally hurtful.
I’ll explain what I mean when I say ‘like for like’. So if you want to buy a bag of potatoes or a new car, it works for anything, you have a budget you can spend on that, so you look at the options in your range, compare the value for money and make a choice. Probably not feeling bad or inferior because you chose a bag of Jersey Royal spuds over the Maris Piper’s - because you could have had both, but you made an informed decision. Same with cars, if you chose one make over another make, and you can afford both, comparing all their qualities helped you get what you want.
But what happens when you start to compare the Volkswagen you bought with the Porsche down the street? Suddenly you feel bad about your car and you want what they have. Your decision suddenly feels less worthy, restricted and poor in comparison. You take no thought that the Porsche guy is feeling the same way about the Ferrari two doors down.
So it’s not comparison that’s bad, the danger is comparing with the wrong things.
I'll paint a picture for you (not literally, that doesn't work brilliantly on a blog or podcast).
Two characters, let's call them Sunshine and Moon (and I see your knowing smile, person who read or listened to last week's blog).
Sunshine is happy with life, feeling very blessed, she's had a hard week with her husband, her successful career gives her constant guilt about missing time with the kids, but this week she managed to have the whole family in one place, eventually persuaded a stranger to stop and take a photo of them all together before the third argument of the day broke out, and for once, she was happy to post a picture of the entire family on her social media rather than the tedious career accolade posts that she’s forced to put out to make her company look good. She adds the hashtag ‘#feelingblessed’, wipes her eyes, wishes her feed was more full of the family pictures her stay-at-home-mum friend’s post from the park, but before she exits social media she notices a friend of a friend commenting on the post of a girl sat at home on her sofa with an ageing fluffy cat, they looked content, void of stress, scrolling down the girl’s profile she sees simple creature comforts which make Sunshine question having children or a career. Thoughts about where she went so wrong fill her head and she wonders if anyone would miss anything about her, other than her wage, if she wasn't around?
On the other side of the world Moon finds out she got overlooked for another promotion at work, takes the bus home to her empty flat and puts some food down for Cat, as he hobbles towards the food bowl Moon tries to push down the thoughts of what she’ll do when she loses him. Sinking into a hot bath she picks up her phone to read a text and ends up opening social media. The first image that pops on her timeline is because a friend of a friend commented on it. The image is of a family, posted by a girl of the same age, the hashtag ‘#feelingblessed’ proudly written above it. As she stares at it, it mocks her life and her lack of a partner or children. Flicking down the woman's feed she finds numerous posts about her successful career and Moon, thinking about her own career and home life, wants to sink under the water, wondering if anyone would miss her except the cat?
This is the common story of comparison on social media. Neither of the posts were wrong or hurtful, neither of the women meant any harm, in a face-to-face conversation they might actually have drawn comfort and encouragement from sharing their lives and their struggles.
So where is the problem? The problem is in us. The truth is we aren’t secure enough in our decisions, our life, or our choices to own them.
If either of these women were actually comparing a more like-for-like life then there’s a chance they would feel better about their life and choices, not worse for what they don’t have.
A room of successful career mums sharing about how hard it is to be present at home and at work, can actually help them to see where the pain points are and where they are doing really well compared to other women. A room full of single people sharing about the loss of not finding a partner or having kids, can leave them feeling comforted and less lonely.
When I’ve been in rooms full of other couples that can’t have children, I have always left feeling stronger and supported and less alone. If I place myself in a room full of mothers, of course I’m going to leave feeling worse. It’s the very theory behind all support groups whether it’s AA, cancer patients, grief support, death cafes, the list goes on.
So what do we do about it? Because you can’t avoid other people’s lives.
Well, you have to be kind to yourself and wise - if it hurts to look at things you don’t have - don’t look at them! Stop scrolling through social media, limit friends who live a life you don’t have but wanted, find your crew, find your people and get the right comparisons in place.
“Don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle, or your middle to someone else's end.” Jon Acuff
Be confident in who you are and the life you are living. It might really suck - but own it. Yes, I don’t have the family we would have liked, yes I don’t have the career I would have loved, yes I’ve been more affected mentally by hormones than I’d like to admit, but I know who I am and as much as I can I limit the impact other people’s successes have on me. They’ll always be painful bits, but I know not to place myself in comparisons that are impossible to compare fairly.
It got me thinking - is it possible for like-for-like comparison to always be a good thing? There are too many scenarios for me to play that out and find an answer but I think if the comparison is fair - there’s always some good you can take out of it. Equally, there’s always some bad you can take out of it, but that’s your choice.
The Silent Why podcast was born to show the wide variety of losses that people go through. Not just to open up the conversation on loss and grief, but also to allow people to compare - in a way that helps, not hurts.
When you compare yourself to the tough situations people go through, you come away (hopefully) encouraged, strengthened and motivated. Or that’s my experience anyway. I didn’t need, in a room full of childless people, someone to suddenly exclaim they’ve had a baby for me to be encouraged it might happen for me. It often has the opposite effect in fact. What encouraged me was the tales of those who had endured, persevered, cried and followed their heart, and who despite no baby, were choosing to live a life that they could find happiness in.
No life is perfect. End of. Not a single one. There is no one you could put before me that hasn’t suffered loss. Yes the scale of the loss will differ hugely but loss is loss and we are all affected by it in different ways, what floors one person is just a blip for another, and visa versa.
Sadly the horrible truth is that the issue with comparison isn’t in what we’re comparing ourselves to, it’s what reaction it causes inside us. And mostly it’s jealousy, not comparison, that’s the issue. But it’s easier to blame what we’re comparing ourselves to, than it is to admit an ugly emotion like jealousy in ourselves.
Comparing can show you what you’re missing, but it can also show you what’s possible.
Comparing can make you resentful, but it can also make you grateful.
Comparing can make you competitive in a negative way, but it can also make you competitive in a way that brings forward greatness.
Comparing can bring out the worst side of you, but it can also bring out your best.
Earlier this week Russel Brand posted an image of text on social media that popped up on my feed. And yes, I follow him largely because I'm ‘jealous’ of his vocabulary.
Anyway, on the text was a story by the Buddist Monk - Thích Nhất Hạnh. I’m going to leave you with it, because I believe it speaks to us in a similar way about how external things we see around us can provoke emotions already in us that might need dealing with.
A monk decides to meditate alone, away from his monastery. He takes his boat out to the middle of the lake, moors it there, closes his eyes and begins his meditation. After a few hours of undisturbed silence, he suddenly feels the bump of another boat colliding with his own. With his eyes still closed, he senses his anger rising, and by the time he opens his eyes, he is ready to scream at the boatman who dared disturb his meditation. But when he opens his eyes, he sees it’s an empty boat that had probably got untethered and floated to the middle of the lake. At that moment, the monk achieves self-realisation, and understands that the anger is within him; it merely needs the bump of an external object to provoke it out of him. From then on, whenever he comes across someone who irritates him or provokes him to anger, he reminds himself, “The other person is merely an empty boat. The anger is within me.” Thích Nhất Hạnh