The comparison trap

Even healthy, well-adjusted people fall into the comparison trap. One version of this is ego-crushing: he or she is my age but looks younger, thinner, more handsome/beautiful, makes more money, drives a more expensive car.  The opposite version boosts our egos for the short term.

The idea for the topic came from an article I read recently about the collection of British documentaries known as the “Up” series.  British director Michael Apted filmed twenty youngsters in 1964 when they were seven years old. According to Wikipedia, “The participants were chosen in an attempt to represent different social classes in Britain.” Apted said that at the time…”he was asked to find children at the extremes.”

The original plan changed and every seven years since Apted has filmed those from the original cast who choose to take part. They are now fifty-six.  People who’ve analyzed the documentaries over time say they’ve gone well beyond describing social class.  From the website “Greater Good, The Science of Meaningful Life,” writer Jeremy Adam Smith sums up lessons he gleaned from the series.

I’m focusing on one: We can make ourselves unhappy merely by comparing ourselves to others. Smith says his biggest takeaway from analyzing the series is that all of us would be happier if we would only stop thinking about ourselves — our appearances, our jobs, our salaries, our positions in life, our marriages, our children — in comparison to others. The film, he says, “invites reflection on the lives of its participants—as opposed to comparison—and so challenges us to examine our own lives.”

From the writings of mental health professionals to Buddhist practitioners, the view about the dangers of making comparisons prevails.  One obvious reason is that making every encounter a competition to decide whether we’re winning or losing is unnecessary and unhealthy.  Another is that when we compare we usually make assumptions that we’re all starting at the same point. Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta, uses the example of comparing himself to runners he observes who are moving faster than he is.  Information lacking in making this comparison includes:

  • “how far they’re running (I might be running 12 miles and they’re running 2)
  • where they are in their particular run (I might be warming up, while they’re at the hardest part of their workout)
  • how many years they’ve been running (maybe I’ve only started, and they’ve been running for 15 years)
  • their injury status (maybe I recently injured an ankle while they’re not injured)…

Is there a way to control our need to compare? Experts say awareness is the first step and accepting that you will always meet someone with talents and looks you don’t have. I appreciate the advice of life coach and sociologist Martha Beck to share stories of your most embarrassing moments with friends.  She says that celebrating failures in a group boosts everyone’s self-confidence. See the link above for more ideas.

Most of us will never escape our tendencies to compare completely.  However, I’ve noticed that as people age, we’re less likely to fret too much over activities that others do better than we do. Intense competition starts to lose its charm.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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