Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live someone else's life?
After falling down the rabbit hole of the internet (yet again), I recently came across an advertisement featuring an Australian jazz singer whom I’d met at a jazz piano course about 15 years ago. She is currently living in Europe, singing jazz in French, and looking flawlessly beautiful in all of her photos and videos.
Even though I barely know her, I found myself comparing my life to hers. I wondered what it would be like to be that beautiful, that talented and that successful – in other words, to be that perfect. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel better for the comparison.
A few minutes later, I had to physically shake myself out of my contemplation when I noticed that my mood had dropped. I knew that the comparison was unfair (to both of us) and unhelpful (to me), so why had I allowed myself to engage in it?
Then I realised that I had just experienced an attack of “comparisonitis”. (Ironically, this happened while I was in the process of writing this article - thank you, Universe!)
If you have ever had a similar experience and would like to learn how to manage it more effectively, please read on...
What is "comparisonitis"?
Comparisonitis is that feeling you experience when you receive news of someone else’s achievement or success and, instead of (or despite) feeling happy for them, you end up comparing yourself to them – usually unfavourably.
It presents as a sense of resistance and can range from mild resentment to full-blown envy, jealousy or even shame. It’s usually accompanied by a generous side-serving of self-doubt.
While commonly attributed to social media, it can also arise in other social situations such as networking events, family gatherings, and high school reunions – any time when people tend to share brief “status updates” about their lives.
Why do we compare ourselves to others?
Humans are social animals.
We are hardwired to engage in certain behaviours that promote social cohesion, which includes comparing ourselves to others in order to monitor and manage our place in the social hierarchy. So it is normal to compare ourselves to others.
The problem is that it’s rarely a fair comparison. It tends to overlook the complete and unique circumstances of both people and, in doing so, erode our individuality.
Comparisonitis often highlights an insecurity in the person making the comparison – a sense of not being “good enough” – and can exacerbate that insecurity with the guilt of not feeling generous enough to celebrate the other person’s success. It can also drive a wedge between friends, colleagues and family members when heartfelt congratulations are withheld or tempered as a result of this insecurity.
As Theodore Roosevelt put it: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
And I would add: “…on so many levels.”
So, with all of that said, would it surprise you to learn that comparisonitis also bears a gift?
As with so many so-called “negative” experiences in life, I have discovered that you can use comparison for your benefit. Here's how.
What is the gift of comparisonitis?
The gift of comparisonitis is that it tells us what is important to us. It is a marker of our needs, values and priorities. It is like a signal being sent up from the depths of our subconscious mind to remind us that something we care about is at stake.
But in order to fully explore and embrace this gift, we must choose to be curious.
Curiosity creates the opportunity for us to learn from the comparison rather than using it as a form of self-flagellation.
What if you’re feeling unsettled by a friend’s recent promotion?
Upon noticing your discomfort, you can use it as a prompt to shift into curiosity and ask yourself: "Why is this bothering me?" Perhaps it is highlighting your own discontent in your current role and could instead motivate you to apply for that job you’ve always wanted. In other words, use the comparisonitis to find out what you really want and invest your energy in moving towards that rather allowing it to damage your friendship.
At a deeper and even more powerful level, comparisonitis is an opportunity to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. By accepting yourself as you are, you can unlock considerable energy to become the person you wish to be.
On the other hand, have you ever found yourself wondering whether there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want what others have?
Sometimes comparisonitis can be triggered when we see others making choices that are different to our own – especially when their choices represent the “norm” in your country, culture or community. I have experienced this form of comparisonitis quite a bit over the past few years as my commitment to being true to myself has led me to take the "road less travelled" in certain areas of my life. And yet that doesn't mean I don't occasionally compare my life to what "might have been".
In this case, the comparison could simply reveal a need to feel accepted in your society and is another opportunity to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. It is also an opportunity to affirm your own priorities and step forward in courage to live and enjoy them.
These are just a few examples of the gifts of comparisonitis.
Next time you find yourself experiencing an "attack of comparisonitis", here are some questions that might help you to unearth its gift:
1. To whom are you comparing yourself?
First of all, get specific about the comparison so you know what you’re dealing with.
2. Is this a fair comparison?
Consider whether you’re taking into account your complete circumstances and the other person’s complete circumstances.
We often compare our “insides” (our internal experience, with all its messiness) with others’ “outsides” (the edited, maybe even Photoshopped, veneer that others present to the outside world). As pastor Steven Furtick puts it: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” This is clearly an unfair and even damaging comparison.
I'm not suggesting that you perform an inventory of your life every time you feel triggered by someone else’s success. On the contrary, this is about reminding yourself that no two individuals are exactly the same and so any comparison is ultimately futile.
3. Is this a helpful comparison?
As mentioned earlier, comparisonitis can highlight a need, value or priority that wants to get your attention. But sometimes it flares up out of habit – based on something that used to be, but is no longer, important to you.
In the latter case, the comparison is probably not that helpful. So are you willing to let it go?
4. What is the gift in this comparison?
If this comparison relates to something that is important to you, how could you use it to move forward in your own life?
What could it inspire you to do or be?
How could you use it as a learning opportunity?
And if the comparison were trying to teach you something, what would it be?
“Every minute you spend wishing you had someone else's life is a minute spent wasting yours.” (Unknown)
Where does comparisonitis show up in your life? And how do you deal with it?
Now I'm off to go and enjoy some jazz...