Photo by Sebastian Davenport-Handley on Unsplash

Comparison Carnival: Stick Around, Enjoy The Show

It’s 1999. I am nine years old and dominating neighborhood kickball. I was blessed with the gift of height at an early age. All of my friends in the neighborhood were boys, and I was the oldest, and the tallest. I was the envied. During our regular kick ball games I was able to glide from base to base in what seemed like a never-ending victorious road into the sunset.

Literally, home base always rested on the top of this little hill at the end of our apartments facing west.

I enjoyed friends coming to my door to ask if I could play. Anyone who was anyone would play marbles, or poggs, or race our fancy Razor scooters. Christian was the neighborhood boy I considered my confidant and closest friend. He was a year younger and, most days, defaulted to my judgment. I was able to pick the teams for roller hockey or building tree houses or playing capture the flag.

A kind and just leader of the neighborhood kids of the Glenn on Falk Rd. in Vancouver, WA.

2001. Enter comparison, or, the name he’d probably prefer, Brian. A rapidly developing 13-year-old who moved in across the street. Brian was “cool”. Technology had begun taking hold, and it was the beginning of the end. Brian’s family was loud and friendly. Their house became the new best place to be.

I remember they had all of the newest PlayStation games. Christian and I were obsessed with Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and Brian had the trending electronics, cheat code magazines, and an awesome fortress of a room. Plus, he was a boy.

Despite the unassuming, heavily sheltered, and often aloof mindset to the things of a typical 11-year-old girl, my mom would never let Christian and I spend the night together. I remember legitimately wondering why.

So many times I would see my best friend cultivate this awesome friendship with our new neighbor, Brian. This was my first cognitive memory of jealousy.

Since then, I have visited the parallel, and now, the often digital world of the comparison carnival for the better half of 28 years.

Empirically, I can say without a doubt that there isn’t a person who breathes air that hasn’t compared some aspect of themselves or their lives to someone else. And I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “everything in moderation” or, when reaching for the Ben & Jerry’s at the store after a work out, “life’s about balance”. These simple yet accurate phrases couldn’t be more true in so many senses.

Balancing the Inevitable Pull of Comparison

Dr. Robert Leahy, who completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship under the direction of Dr. Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, is inclined to side with the evolutionary research on jealousy. Certainly, a byproduct of comparison.

Dr. Leahy suggests that emotions have evolved and stayed with us because they are useful in certain context.

Millions of years ago, men and women needed comparison to decide who would be the fittest mate for the survival of their offspring.

Obviously, a lot has changed since the days of foraging for food and shelter, and the need for comparison has changed contexts.

A few traps I fell into before really reflecting on my comparison binges were…

  1. Social media… Need I say more? Sometimes it seems like social media was literally built to compile all the best images and successes of our lives, plaster them to an online medium, and boast about how perfect our lives are going, when in reality it looks more like this…
  • I found myself comparing what I looked like, what products I was using, what phrases were in, how smart I was, how I dressed, what countries I have traveled to, or what I do in my free time (news flash: hiking isn’t the only productive thing to do on a sunny day), what my profiles looked like, and a biggy, the pace of my life.
  • Was I supposed to have a career by now? Be married? Have kids? It seemed like everyone was in a rush to do everything at once, and all before the next person. This is a comparison trap.

2. Stagnation. After I graduated with a BA in communications in 2012, I went into the “real world”, and what I thought I knew about myself was viscerally clear-cut without warning. All I had after graduation was comparison. Where should I be now? Maybe I should try what he’s doing? I don’t think I am where I am supposed to be. These are the thoughts that ran through my head minute by minute. It was so overwhelming, I did nothing. I was paralyzed, stagnant, unproductive, and uncreative.

3. Contentment. Not in a grandiose self-actualized way, but in a “I guess I am not what I thought I was way.” The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we can’t do what’s in our hearts. That the essence of our souls, continuously speaking to us, is somehow wrong, and the girl in the picture with her wedding ring unfreezes and says, “you’re right, you can’t do that, you can’t do anything”.

A cure for comparison, if I may be so bold, can boil down to three things.

1. Radical acceptance. That is, being willing to experience a situation as it is, rather than how you think it should be.

  • Another corny saying that is coming to mind is, run your own race. For me, I couldn’t do it by willpower alone. I deleted social media for four months, began creating regularly, and didn’t let myself settle. Because in the end it will be just you. Your soul, your spirit, and your thoughts, and what YOU think about your life. No one else in comparison to how you will make peace with what you did with your time here.

2. Your jealousy makes sense.

  • Don’t beat yourself up about being a bit jealous of your friend who got the promotion. Forgive yourself for your thought, congratulate your buddy, and move on. It makes perfect sense that you would want a promotion too, you want to be better. Celebrate that you care enough to want something.

3. DO!

  • No one ever succeeded by feeling bad for themselves. When I finally followed my own advice, I applied for graduate school. I was rejected. Then I applied a few other places, and voilá. Accepted! and on my way. This wouldn’t have happened had I stayed in the comparison traps I had felt so comfortable in before.

The paradigms we create for ourselves can elicit beautiful and challenging journeys worthwhile, or calamity and despair with detrimental ramifications. You wont be able to ward off comparison forever, but you can arm yourself with the peace of mind and tools to fight back and take control over your thoughts. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Accept yourself, understand your feelings, and never stop creating.

“In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either. The key, or the door to open. Except yourself.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jessalyn is a psychotherapist who works primarily with adolescents in the greater Seattle area on anxiety, trauma, and depression.

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