Apples to Oranges: Comparing Yourself to Others
Apples to Oranges: Comparing Yourself to Others
(Note: I am reposting some blog posts that are included in my newest book, Everything Is Included.
Q: My mind loves to constantly compare myself to others, often in a negative way. I find that this mindset stalls my creativity and makes me feel downright sad. I also feel that if this keeps up, it will hurt my career, my life trajectory, and most importantly, my happiness. I have tried meditation, prayer, and seeking stillness in nature, but nothing makes this tendency go away. I know this is but one thought of millions and that all thoughts come and go. I know that I am worthy and that I am unique and like no other. Yet knowing all of this doesn't prevent the autopilot comparison mind from wreaking havoc inside me with all the negative emotions that come from this stuck pattern.
A: Our minds are designed to work in habitual patterns. This is a good thing much of the time, since that allows many of our actions to be unconscious. For example, we can drive a car without having to think about it. But when a habit is not actually serving us, then it is time for a new habit. I like how you refer to the autopilot nature of the mind. The mind is mostly a creature of habit, and once a habit gets going, it can have a lot of momentum. Most mental habits form because they were useful or seemed useful at the time. The problem is when a mental habit is no longer useful or not useful, like your habit of comparing yourself negatively to others.
The best way to deal with a habit that doesn’t serve is to create a new habit to take its place. Trying to get rid of an old habit without replacing it with something else is like trying to not think of a pink elephant. The thought or habit is still the focus, and so it gets reinforced even by trying to get rid of it. Instead, I would suggest you focus on what you want to do instead with your mind and attention. Create some new habit and put your attention on it. A powerful question to consider is: "What do I want to do instead of comparing myself to others?"
There are three different levels from which this question can be answered. The first level is the level of the content of your thoughts. You can practice thinking about something else. You could even create some new comparing type thoughts, since that is what the mind does best. Just like you give a dog a bone so it won’t chew on your shoes and furniture, you can give the mind a thought to chew on.
Often, a much more useful comparison is to compare yourself to yourself in the past. If you are considering your performance at your job, what happens when you compare how you are doing now with how well you did the first week at that job? Or how about when you compare your abilities now to your abilities when you first got out of high school? Or what about comparing your abilities now to when you were a child? These are more useful comparisons, since they illuminate the progress you have made. This is comparing apples to apples, while comparing yourself to others is more like comparing apples to oranges.
Another fun way to substitute a comparison is to make up ridiculous comparisons. What happens when you compare yourself to a cartoon character? Or to a mouse? Or to an inanimate object? By exaggerating how little use there is in comparing yourself to something else, it might become clearer that comparing yourself to other people is also pretty useless.
Another level of working with comparisons is to explore how true your thoughts actually are. The truth is what opens your heart and quiets the mind. Something that is less true will contract your heart and your awareness and make the mind even busier. Since some thoughts have a lot of truth and some thoughts have almost no truth, it can be much more useful to compare the relative truthfulness of your own thoughts. Your comparisons with others won’t matter so much if you also recognize that those thoughts are not very true or important.
The third level you can explore is to make a habit of noticing what else is here besides your mind. If your mind is not serving you in the moment, try paying attention to your body instead. Or you can notice the world and the people around you. What if instead of paying attention to your thoughts about other people you paid attention to the people themselves?
This third level of exploration is endless. There are many dimensions and subtleties to the world and to the rest of your being besides your mind. Is awareness present right now? Is peace or love or joy present right now? What are awareness, peace, joy, and love like? How do you know they are or are not present?
Just focus on creating and doing the things you really want to do with your mind and your attention, and you will naturally spend less and less time comparing yourself to others without directly struggling against the tendency to compare yourself to others. You might as well spend your time doing what you really want to do.
If you find it difficult to carry out these suggestions, you might want to find a good therapist who is a skilled practitioner of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). One of the strengths of NLP is its ability to help people shift their behaviors. For example, one of the techniques in NLP is to imagine practicing a new habit in the future repeatedly in your mind. This is just as effective as actually doing it in the future and doesn’t depend on remembering to do it in the future. In this way, you can create some momentum right now to the new habits so that they are as automatic as the old ones were.
Clearly this habit of comparing yourself to others is not serving you. What do you want to do instead? What new habits would you enjoy having? What else is here right now besides your comparing mind? There are endless possibilities of new habits you can create. What do you really want?