When I told my husband that I was thinking about writing a post on the importance of not comparing, he laughed. For quite a long time.
So apparently I am addressing myself as I write this.
Comparing ourselves with others is common practice. Some of us even make it an art form. Unfortunately, I think that group has included me.
An early, defining moment was the discovery that a girl in the year above me at school had gone on to study fine art at the Sorbonne in Paris and then medicine at Cambridge. I so admired her epic and stylish crossing of both national and discipline boundaries, and felt emphatically small and dull in comparison.
I had a similar experience recently when I stumbled on the profile of someone I studied with at university who - like me - is now a forty-something mother. Slightly less like me, her facebook photos show her in a bikini at a festival, with legs so long and foal-like they look photoshopped (they aren’t; they haven’t changed in 20 years).
She is spectacular. But her beauty hasn’t done anything to stop me from being who I could or should be. I know that her looks and my sense of self are entirely unrelated. So why do I wallow in the comparison?
As a society, we measure constantly. It’s useful. We view the world through figures: rate rises, dress sizes, exam scores, numbers of followers, return on investment, and use these metrics to judge what is successful, and what has value.
This information is also more readily available to us than ever before. We can search for a person and instantly find their job title and qualifications, even the value of their home.
As a result, we rate ourselves, identifying where we believe we come in the order of things. This can make some of us feel good, others feel falsely superior, and far too many of us freeze or recoil in response. As practices go, it’s got to be pretty pointless.
Here are four reasons why:
1. It steals joy. Comparing yourself critically with someone else more often than not lowers your mood and throws your focus. It also steals your ability to be genuinely happy for someone who has developed a talent, been tenacious and achieved something. That deserves to be celebrated rather than used as fuel to feed our insecurities.
2. It stops momentum. The perceived gap between ourselves and those we admire may spur some on to greater efforts and successes, but more often it saps our energy and sense of empowerment, and brings with it stasis, self-pity and an erosion of self belief.
3. It’s contagious. Those who live around comparers risk catching the habit. As a parent I know that my children’s value is, quite frankly, beyond imagining. I would stand up to anyone who undermined them. So why risk behaving in a way that causes them to develop an internal narrative that does just that?
4. It’s inaccurate. We often focus on the wrong things, and miss the big picture. Google can find someone’s title, career summary or net worth, but it doesn’t know how to show you what they carry in their heart, or the content of their character.
So if these are some of the reasons not to compare, how do we go about releasing ourselves from the curse of comparison?
I’d argue that we need a fundamental change in the way we see things. If we take ourselves as our starting point - the selves we know to be lacking, because there’s simply no hiding - and look out at a world full of apparently able and high achieving people, we feel diminished.
But what if we switch the viewing point?
If we learn to look at ourselves and others from a wider, higher and more generous perspective, we see something radically different.
We see real people who are at once flawed, frustrating and full of wonder. Somehow, despite the vast numbers of people who have lived and died over centuries past, not one has yet been a duplicate.
In his book ‘Gratitude’, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes: "There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
Two millennia earlier, an erudite Roman citizen called Paul of Tarsus was exploring a similar idea when he wrote that we are all - every one of us - God’s ‘poiema’. This Greek term means craftsmanship.
It also means masterpiece.
Masterpieces are one-offs. They have a history and a resonance, imperfections, light, shade and colour all their own. They’re not copies. You don’t interpret one only by looking at a thousand others.
You stand in front of it and drink it in.
It's quite hard to wallow when you start seeing it that way.