The Comparing Game.Escape The Comparing Paradigm And Be Your True Self (2015)
Chapter 5: Self-Reflection
Consider a professional swimmer, in order to swim faster and train for a race, he will have to keep recording his own lap time and trying to improve it. Even though the swimmer will eventually compete in a race against his contenders, the only way he can become the best is by constantly timing himself and working to break his own record again and again. Our life is not much different. The key to being successful in any capacity is to focus on beating our own ‘time’.
Mostly we compete with who we interact with. Students in school compete for top grades against fellow classmates, writers’ biggest rivals are fellow writers, and employees at a workplace have to stand out amongst fellow coworkers. Human perception is such that we compare ourselves frequently to the people who are a regular staple in some aspect of our life.
It is ironic then, that we forget that our biggest competition is the person we spend absolutely all our time with; ourselves. In order to move away from perpetuated stereotypes to accept ourselves, we must begin to reflect upon ourselves and live up to the standards we set for us.
In our final chapter, we are going to use the information we have learned to unlearn the habit of comparing ourselves to others and understand what we can gain from setting up what we call self-competition. In previous chapters, we discussed the reasons behind our tendency to compare ourselves with those around us, and we also established certain preliminary root causes of such comparison.
Outlined below are the best methods to adopt in order to help ourselves from stop making unproductive comparisons with others and indulge in habits that make way for a more positive worldview.
- Analyze yourself: When we compare ourselves with others, we actually focus on them more than us. We relate our life to theirs, but we do not relate our life to ourselves. The key to happiness and self-discovery is introspection. Analyze yourself and recognize what it is that you want out of yourself. Do you want to focus more on your domestic responsibilities? Do you want to make more money in your existing line of work? Do you want to change your career?
Studies in behavioural neuroscience at the University of Toronto suggest that even though people wonder why they are unhappy, most of the time they know exactly what it is that they want to change about themselves. Spend time with yourself and listen to the words you say, the answers you give and the decisions you make. Ultimately, these are the factors that will help you turn towards a more positive lifestyle as opposed to a consistent habit of pitting yourself against the perceived competition.
- Know your story: As we discussed in Chapter 3, everybody has a different background and a different journey that lead them to the place they reach. The people we compare ourselves to have had a multitude of events take place in their life. To get through this cycle of judgement and to become secure in yourself, you need to know your story. What kind of life have you lived so far? What occurrences in your life have lead to you becoming the person that you are? Have things happened to you that have developed tendencies and habits that may be stopping you from achieving your full potential? These are the questions you must ask yourself first and foremost; these are the things that matter. The rich person across the street may have come from a rich background; the seemingly happier boy in your class may not have had an abusive childhood. Between all the factors that affect human behaviour, think about the ones most relevant to you.
- Know your limits: Also in reference to Chapter 3, strengths and weaknesses are not always learned. They may very well be genetic or natural. Take the example of basketball legend Michael Jordan, Jordan was lauded for the skill and effort he put into his game and the hours he spent analyzing his tactics and learning from his mistakes. While nobody can deny that Jordan takes the credit for his determination and constant success, there were many natural factors that helped him become the star that he did. Michael Jordan was extraordinary tall, a critical requirement for basketball players. He had the flexibility and agility within his body to pursue a career of this sort and his genes played a major rule in training him towards basketball.
Had Jordan been born a foot shorter and asthmatic, the world would never have known him and the game of basketball would have missed out on the greatest asset it ever had. You may want to be the next big thing, the next legend in the world of basketball. Still, you may not have all the critical requirements for it. You may actually be asthmatic, or not flexible enough. If you are determined enough, you will achieve your dreams no matter what. But instead of comparing your own self to Michael Jordan, think about what you have that he may not. Think about what it is that you can do to compensate for the luck you may have missed out on. Knowing your weaknesses is sometimes just as important as knowing your strengths. It is a great learning opportunity.
- Look for inspiration: What we perceive to be better in others is what we look for in ourselves. This is an opportunity to avail that which we envy in somebody else and duplicate it within us. Instead of comparing ourselves to others and thinking that someone else is more successful/happy/lucky, we should focus on being motivated and inspired by the people that we admire the most.
If a student compares herself to the best student in the class, she shifts the comparison to inspiration and focus on working harder to achieve better grades. If a man feels self-conscious about his body at the gym, he should channel that feeling in to an exercise machine instead. Once you have begun to see an improvement, focus on beating your own record. Make yourself the ultimate source of inspiration.
- Set your own standards: Even when we feel unhappy, it is because we feel that we are not contented enough by our own standards. All our emotions are dictated by the preconceived notions we have about ourselves. These notions are the most important weapons we have in the fight against unhappiness and comparison. In order to become better and improve ourselves, we need to set standards that only we can beat. The most challenging race is one in which we have no contenders but ourselves. If your aim is to improve your income, think about the ways you can improve your performance at work. If you aim to lose weight, think about the changes you can make within your daily routine to reach your goal.
- Be proud: Much like knowing your own shortcomings, it is important to appreciate your own skills. Regardless of how small we may feel when we compare our self to someone seemingly ‘better’, we all have skills, gifts and talents that belong to us and that may aid us in the process of meeting our own standards. By being proud of yourself, you will find that you are less prone to fixating on other people and you will find it easier to feel confident and comfortable in your own skin.
Below is a case study describing a woman’s journey of self-growth, from her chronic habit of judging herself against others to the methods she develops to combat this negative cycle. How she begins to change her habits is reflective of the ways she turns herself in to her own biggest competition.
Case Study – Emily
Emily grew up in a large but poor family, she did extremely well in school and despite being accepted in to several universities, she was unable to afford the tuition. She ended up working as a babysitter and focusing on making ends meet for her family. Today Emily is 30; she feels unproductive and unhappy because she was forced to give up on her dream of becoming a financial journalist. She now works part time jobs anywhere that pays well and feels self-conscious when meeting new people.
Emily has become reclusive; she finds that every time she meets someone new they happen to be bankers or economists or teachers with exciting careers and a future to look forward to. As she begins to fall into a habit of comparing herself to everyone around her, she finds herself to be more unhappy and feels her self-esteem plummet. She notices that her car is an outdated model, she doesn’t have any assets, and even her wardrobe isn’t impressive enough to keep her in step with the fast paced society she lives in.
With time, Emily begins to feel ashamed about her own self. She dreads anytime anyone asks her what she does for a living. She begins to feel a resentment growing towards her parents for not being able to send her to college. She even starts to believe that no man will ever be interested enough in her to marry her because she has nothing to offer the world anymore. Everyone around her is more successful, married and planning their futures happily. Yet she has nothing to look forward to and is becoming more and more inclined to spend her time alone.
It’s a long time before Emily begins to realize that she has lost her ambition and has stopped thinking about herself. She hasn’t made any change in her life for years and she has become comfortable in her own bitterness and misery. One day Emily realizes that she used to be the best student in her class, that she was the girl who was admitted to some excellent universities.
Emily remembers that the reason she was the best student in her class was because she never tried to get better marks than anyone but herself. When she did well on a test, she focused on doing even better on the next. When she got perfect marks on a test, she intended to maintain that mark. When she didn’t do well, she went home and spent time re-reading her answers to learn from her mistakes. The secret to her adolescent success was her lack of interest in comparing her success to anybody else’s.
It is on this day that Emily decided to make a change in her life, to set goals for herself and achieve them. She knows she doesn’t have a finance degree to become a journalist, so she applies to a local magazine to get a start as a staff writer. She intends to keep writing until she establishes a reputation to become a trainee at a finance magazine. She has to start small, but there is nowhere to go but up. A minor change in motivation is all Emily needs, instead of seeing more successful people around her, she now sees a successful and ambitious person within herself.
Emily represents everything we all need to be. It is true that human nature is difficult to alter. People will never be able to completely stop the trajectory of social comparison. With the onset of media and the increased contact between people everywhere, comparison has become unavoidable. However, this compression of society has also given us the tools for self-improvement. Today our world allows us to focus more on ourselves. The tools we have been given are the tools we must use. The comparison that can improve the journey of our life is only with our self.
In this book, we have discussed at length the nature of the ‘comparing game’ and gained some understanding of the way it develops through an individual’s lifetime. The habit a person develops, of comparing them self with others is not merely a passing contemplation, it is the manifestation of our innermost thoughts. Our society is highly interconnected, and we are affected by the people around us. We understand ourselves best when we reflect on that which is dissimilar from us.
However, we discussed that while comparison may be a common convention, it is not a healthy one and very rarely a positive influence on our lives. More often than not, comparing ourselves to others creates inaccurate perceptions of ourselves and everything around us. We begin to believe things that do not exist, we make assumptions about other people and we develop most of our opinions despite a lack of understanding of the internal realities of anyone’s life.
Happiness is the most important aim of the average person’s life, the career we pursue, the money we make and the people we befriend/marry are all constituents of the bigger picture we intend to pursue. However, by comparing ourselves to others we lose sight of the fact that our happiness is the result of our own actions and that comparing our own level of contentment with others is not the way to bring more pleasure into our lives.
There are several factors to take into account when we consider ourselves against others, we come from a different background and we are unique in our own way. The element to remember is that being different and being unique in our own way is our greatest quality. Fitting in to the crowd is often important. But standing out in a positive way is always beneficial.
In order to make changes in our life and come to accept and progress ourselves, there are certain things we need to remember and steps we need to take. Most essential is to be true to ourselves and keep sight of our best qualities and greatest limitations. Remember that it is not just that people come from different places, but that people are all going different places. We may not be the best at something because we are simply not designed to be that way. Society, genetics, history, and luck play a major role in the trajectory of our evolution as individuals.
In theory, it can be argued that the habit of comparison is one that should be kicked to the curb effectively. There is very little to gain from constantly trying to measure up to people who are vastly different from us. The habit we need to develop is an introspective one, the only competition we must have in life is our own self.
The key to understanding what we want to change, what we want to improve, and what we want to emulate is to get to know ourselves like we never have before. In order to become that person that you think is happier than you, you need to ask yourself what it is that makes you happy. Spend time with yourself. Read books that move you, take an interest in the society around you and think about the people that bring positive changes in you.
We looked at Emily’s evolution as an example of self-growth; Emily became the victim of her own misconceptions about people. She lost confidence in herself and lost sight of who she was. It was only when she regained that recognition that she brought herself back to the path of self-actualisation. Emily realised that she may not have the job that so many others around her did, but that was because she did not have the advantage of a first class education like her peers.
She began to understand that what she lacked in comparison to others, she made up for with the many qualities that were particular to only her. It was when she truly understood that she was becoming her own biggest obstacle that she took to changing her life.
What Emily achieved in the end may not have been overnight success; it was something far more important. She took a great step in the right direction and gained back the assurance she needed to continue on that path. The experiences of a lifetime are what create a lifetime; the past and the future are not exclusive of each other. In fact, our past affects our future. Not anybody else’s past but our own, and only our own.
There is no specific moral to this story; this is not a self-help book. This book is an acknowledgment of the truth that exists in all of us; the truth behind the spectacular phenomenon that is human behaviour. Human beings are simultaneously helpless and completely in control of their actions and consequences. In the long run, it is not relevant what we can or cannot control. What we know is that we definitely cannot control is everyone else in the world. What we know we have responsibility for is the expedition that is our existence.
Whether it is Matt, David, Ruth, or Anne, what they all have in common is a power over their thoughts and measures. A perception of the reality that surrounds their life and the ability to put things into perspective. It is the aspect that we need to hold on to in order to avoid falling into mindless comparisons and ruining our self-confidence.
There is no ‘best’ way to live life, but there is a way to live your own life the best way. It varies from person to person, but as long as there is self-awareness and self-reliance, each person has a certain level of autonomy. Comparison is not a habit anyone can be expected to fall out of overnight. In fact, nobody can become completely oblivious to those around them. However, if we challenge the positive around us into productivity and diminish the negative, we can all accept and be proud that we have taken a step forward along the right path.