Comparison-itis: Do You Feel Less Than Adequate When You Look at Other People? (And What to Do About It)
Ever Feel Like an Imposter?
It’s like imposter syndrome,
my client said.
I know I’m capable, but when I look at other people, I judge myself for not being enough.
Ah, it’s oh so common to compare ourselves (unfavourably) to others, and to then think the solution is to ‘fix’ something inside of us, or to convince ourselves to feel better despite being less good.
What if, though, what we were doing was trapping ourselves in an illusion of contrast that was no more real than a game of charades? We can try on the comparison, but it doesn’t make us feel better, or help us actually get better at what we do.
It’s pretty normal to look at people who seem to be doing better than us — they’re thinner, richer, more accomplished… and find ourselves wanting.
There’s that shrinking feeling of not being good enough.
Our Own Glass Ceiling
But what about other ways we compare ourselves. What if I looked around and found myself to be better off: I’m a better cook than most people I know, for example, (true!)
AND, if that was where I looked then I would create a glass ceiling for myself. I’d never look at what I could do to be better, I’d never look at where I wanted to learn more. I’d never realise my potential and I’d be holding myself back from achieving mastery (or simply having more fun in the process of learning!).
My client went on to tell me how this ‘imposter syndrome’ had haunted her since she was 18. She’d been in the top one or two students at school, but, when she went to an elite university, she’d been middle of the pack and suddenly felt inadequate. She couldn’t reach the top no matter how hard she worked.
As we started to prod and poke at her experience, she realised that her single-minded comparison-itis had held her back at university.
I always tried to work harder,
she told me.
What if those study methods didn’t work for me. Maybe I could have tried something else?
That’s how it works.
Whenever we are caught in examining our own thoughts — whether they show up as a comparison or any other flavour of thought, we are restricting ourselves from seeing something new.
We think the solution has to come from the ‘thing’ that looks real to us, the truth of our ‘middle of the pack’ grades, for example, but that so-called ‘reality’ is a smokescreen.
Sure, it can be helpful to look at how we’re doing, but a score is simply a milestone — it doesn’t have meaning. And it especially doesn’t have meaning about you.
Dogs on the Beach
I told my client that I’d been to the beach with my dog the previous weekend. He loves playing with other dogs and he came across a friendly spaniel who took up the chase. The spaniel ran rings around my guy — literally, until he flopped down on the sand.
My fella’s a Dalmatian, so he’s kinda lollopy.
He can run, but he has (or will have as he gets older) more capacity for endurance than for speed.
We laughed, the spaniel’s owner and I. But, at no point, would it have occurred to us to think our dog was lacking in any way. One dog was simply faster than the other — she had different qualities. It didn’t make her ‘better’; simply ‘different’.
Different Isn’t Worse. Or Better. It’s Just Different!
What if we brought more of this into our own lives? What if we celebrated our potential and focused on that amazing capacity we humans have for learning? What if we engaged in the excitement of what we were doing, simply for its own sake.
And then, sometimes, we looked at the score to see whether we liked the direction we were heading and to take stock of whether to try something new.
If we judged our dogs on speed the spaniel would win every time. If we judged cuteness…. well, there’s no comparison — my guy would win every time!
But those comparisons aren’t relevant to the dog, nor to how much we love them.
I was out in the forest and met a dog walker who’d just taken home a rescue dog.
I never thought I’d have this kind of dog, I’ve always like chunky dogs,
she told me (the dog was a saluki-cross — gorgeous!).
But I love her soooo much.
And isn’t that the truth: when we look with love in our eyes, surprise surprise, it shows up in whatever we’re looking at.
As I talked with my client about this thing she was calling ‘comparison’, and how we made up standards and scores, she started to laugh.
What’s actually true is that we’ve made up the whole idea of university, we’ve made up assessments, we’ve made up that there is a right way and a wrong way to study, we’ve made up that one degree means something better or worse than another.
The reality is that we can choose any group of people and compare ourselves, favourably or unfavourably, but why would we do that, other than it’s a fun game?
It’s like counting the spots on my dog and deciding he has too few or too many.
Sure, some people might do that, but it doesn’t mean anything — we’ve made up that there’s a standard for spottiness.
In that moment, my client realised that her obsession with doing better had only limited her. Had she been able to wind back the clock ten years, she would have tried different ways to study. She wouldn’t have tried to cram, she would have done less but deeper.
It never worked for me learning off by heart, but I thought that was what everyone else was doing.
Our best work never comes from thinking we are better or worse than someone else.
Our best work only ever comes from immersion. From joy. From seeing the potential that we have, and knowing how to release it into the world.
Just like the dogs. When we look at them as they are, and we see the energy of aliveness in them, we’re filled with love.
How would it be if you looked at yourself with that same love? How would it be if you felt appreciation for who you are and what you’re capable of? How would it be if you stopped comparing yourself to some made-up version of what you think you ‘should’ be?
I’d love you to comment and let me know what you see!
P.S. I’ve spent decades developing a deep understanding of human performance so that I can support leaders to create more impact with the work they do. If you’re curious about how I can support you or your organisation, please email me and we can explore.