Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Dangers of Comparing Yourself to Others

This message was presented to the congregation on Sunday, May 31:

Since retiring about 4 years ago, I have been spending time looking inward in order to try to figure out what motivates me to behave in certain ways.  I have found this to be difficult, humbling, scary and at times, wonderfully freeing!  One of the behaviors that I have been reflecting on and researching is my habit of comparing myself to others.  I guess I started the comparison business when I was fairly young.  Coming from a family with six children, I can remember a lot of squabbles surrounding “How come she gets the bigger one?” or “Why does he get to go and I can’t?”  Regardless of when I learned – I’ve been a comparer for most of my life.

There are some instances when comparisons are not bad or wrong.  Take comparing one estimate for work to be done against another estimate…..or comparing the benefits of one type of investment against another….or comparing the functionality of one appliance brand against another.  Those types of comparisons are necessary in order to get the product or outcome that you want or need.

I’d like to focus on an unhealthy type of comparison – comparing oneself with another.  When we do this comparison, there are usually two outcomes – we feel inferior because we compare ourselves to someone we believe is “better” than we are; or we feel superior because our comparison becomes a judgment of someone.

I’m going to presume that we all do it or have done it at some point in our lives.  We compare ourselves to others and gauge where we are based on what we observe them to be doing.

If it was simply an observation, that would be one thing.  But in comparing oneself to others, we often end up judging ourselves and there’s no one worse to judge!  It’s not a fair comparison, of course.  I tend to compare myself with someone I perceive as being, doing, having more.  The key word here is perceive  because I don’t always know of their insecurities or how much suffering and pain they have endured during their life. 

But even if it’s an apples-to-apples comparison – my gifts or things to theirs – what use is that?  Do my gifts and things need to be better than anyone else’s?  Why?

Do these things determine my happiness?  Do they show me what life is about?

No:  happiness comes from appreciating what’s in front of me, not wishing I was someone else or doing something else.  In order for me to find out what life is about, I need to pay closer attention to my life, not someone else’s. 

And I don’t need to be better than anyone else:  I just need to love where I am and what I’m doing and who I am.  That’s what matters.

The comparisons don’t make me happier or appreciate life more – they make me feel “less than.”

I remember comparing in grade school, especially around the 5th or 6th grades.  I was very quiet and shy and I used to look at the girls who were not and wish that I was like them.  I was also on the chubby size and would look at the other girls who were thin and wish that I looked like them.  You must remember also, that this was the age of Twiggy!  These comparisons only made me feel “less than”.  And that’s the thing about comparing yourself to others – there is never a win for you.

There are an infinite number of categories upon which a person can compare themself and an almost infinite number of people to compare yourself to.  Once we begin down that road, we never find an end. 

The tendency to compare ourselves to others is as human as any other emotion.  But the decision to compare only steals joy from our lives and it’s a habit with lots of shortcomings.  Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”  They add no value, meaning or fulfillment to our lives.  They only distract from it.  There are so many things wrong with comparing such as:

Comparisons are always unfair:  We typically compare the worst we know of ourselves to the best we presume about others.

Each person is too unique to compare fairly:  Your gifts, talents, successes, contributions and value are entirely unique to you and your purpose in this world.  They can never be properly compared to anyone else.

You have nothing to gain, but much to lose when comparing.  For example, your pride, your dignity, your drive and your passion.  Even if you reach the highest level of success, there will always be something – or someone- else to focus on.  But by doing so, we waste precious energy focusing on other peoples’ lives rather than our own.

Comparisons often result in resentment - Resentment toward others and toward oneself.

How then, can we break this habit of comparison?

One of the tools I read about was re-directing our comparison to how we were in the past as compared to how we are now.  In other words, keep the comparison within instead of without.  Think about the fact that we are always becoming more.  Who we are today is the result of the decisions we made yesterday.  We are always in a “state of creation.”  So, when you catch yourself comparing yourself to another, stop for a moment and re-direct the thought.  Instead of submitting to the temptation to compare yourself to someone else, ask yourself a few questions instead:

1.      What are you doing today that you couldn’t have done five, three or even one year ago?  Become aware of your successes.  No matter what your place is in life, you have a unique perspective backed by unique experiences and unique gifts. 

2.      How have you stepped out in the last year that you might have found inconceivable before?  You have everything you need to accomplish good in your little section of the world.  Find motivation to pursue these opportunities.

3.      What negative behavior have you stopped engaging in that you never thought you could quit?  Remind yourself that no one is perfect and nobody is living a painless life.

4.      What positive behavior have you been engaging in that up until now, you have resisted?  A positive behavior, such as gratitude forces us to recognize the good things we already have in our world.

5.      How have you continued to become a new and improved version of yourself?  Finding inspiration and learning from others is very wise.  Try asking questions of the people you admire.  Surround yourself with people who know more than you do about a topic that you are interested in. 

These are the things that count.  Comparing ourselves with someone else is inaccurate and irrelevant.  We all came into this world differently.  We all came in with certain gifts that, through life experience, we have continued to hone.  Remember that the only masterful creation we have to work with is ourselves.  We should strive to be the best possible versions of ourselves – not only for own selves, but for the benefit and contribution we can offer to others.  Learn to celebrate the little advancements you make without comparing them to others.  There are so many negative effects with comparing.  It’s a shame that we do it.  You will be amazed at the freedom you can find if you compare less.

In closing, I’d like to share a quote from Helen Keller.  “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow humans.  It then appears that we are among the privileged.”