Comparison is the death of joy. – Mark Twain
Recently, as I was reading through the pages of Brene Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart, Mark Twain’s quote kept popping up in the back of my mind. It led to more questions than answers. Why do we compare ourselves to others? Is it always a bad thing or can it be beneficial? Is it possible to stop? What does it mean to us as leaders in our teams, organizations, communities, and families?
I read on …
“Comparison is actually not an emotion, but it drives all sorts of big feelings that can affect our relationships and our self-worth. More often than not, social comparison falls outside of our awareness …This lack of awareness can lead to us showing up in ways that are hurtful to ourselves and others.”
Still, more questions kept bubbling up. How will these negative behaviors show up? What can we do to stop this unintentional behavior before it becomes hurtful?
“Researchers Jerry Suls, Rene Martin, and Ladd Wheeler explain that ‘comparing the self with others … is a pervasive social phenomenon,’ and how we perceive our standings or rankings with these comparisons can affect our self-concept, our level of aspiration, and our feelings of well-being.”
And the biggest AHA moment in the pages of this book, as this social phenomenon relates to leader development:
“We use comparison not only to evaluate past and current outcomes but to predict future prospects. This means significant parts of our lives, including our future, are shaped by comparing ourselves to others.”
So, comparison says, “Be like everyone else but better.” For some leaders, this fuels growth and development if the leader an individual is comparing themselves to is someone to truly look up to. But more often than not, “Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other – it is trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out.” Brene Brown
What can we do about it?
If we compare ourselves to others, we risk often seeing ourselves at a disadvantage, constantly preoccupied with what we do not have and cannot do as well as the next person. Such a negative state of mind will cost us opportunities and will dissuade us from putting in our best efforts. Comparison sabotages confidence when it runs unchecked internally.
Three ways to practice shifting from a Comparison Orientation to Enhanced Emotional Intelligence using Self-Awareness:
Keep Your Eyes on Your Mat
My yoga teacher says this almost weekly. She means, we are stepping onto the mat to make time for personal alignment, and comparison often interferes with that focus. As leaders, when we feel comparison creeping in, we can visualize stepping onto the mat, and turning our attention to what makes us happy and satisfied personally and professionally. Making a list of what we strive for may help turn the quest inward and combat feelings of “not-enoughness.”
Closing The Gap
When success surrounds us, but is not ours directly, instead of seeing it as our failure, we need to shift that perspective. A wise stranger once shared with me that when someone near him “wins the lottery” he has trained himself to think, “then I am one step closer to winning myself.” See other’s success as “closing the gap.” We are fast approaching the moment when we are in the spotlight because we are able to celebrate the success of others from an authentic place.
Use Gratitude to Reprogram Comparison Orientation
Gratitude is the perfect way to combat negative social comparisons. It may not be possible to feel grateful and happy for the person we are directly comparing ourselves to, so don’t. Rather, think of all the people that have mentored, shepherded, and contributed to our success, and turn our gratitude on them. Pretty soon, the negative social comparison will dissipate as our energy shifts to a place of appreciation. This is powerful. A huge roadblock is thinking we have to be happy for the person we are unconsciously comparing ourselves to and it doesn’t feel authentic therefore it is not gratitude. Deactivating the negative effects of social comparison relies only on genuinely feeling appreciation for anything. Feelings of gratitude toward one’s pet will work just fine. It is the emotional response to the thought that matters, not the subject of the thought. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
If “comparison is the death of joy,” as Mark Twain wrote, then being aware of this tendency is instrumental in our success as leaders. As I talk about almost daily with the leaders I coach, the gift of joy is vitality. A joyful leader is an engaged leader. When we experience joy, we have a sense of vitality, aliveness, buoyancy, and resilience. It is not an easy shift to make because social comparison is pervasive and is often subconscious. But, if we keep our eyes on our own mat, celebrate the success of others, and find things to be grateful for every day, we will find more of the joyful leader within us each passing day.