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The art of making healthy comparisons

Edwina Ings-Chambers says it’s time to stop checking out the competition
and find new ways to measure your progress.

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In the space of a single day – and rather poignantly, as it was whilst researching this piece – three friends felt downcast because they didn’t measure up to someone else. One was contemplating ditching her yoga class as she felt like a loser with her un-bendy body next to others. Another was feeling extra chubby and self-conscious because her friend had lost weight and she hadn’t. And another said she was thinking of deleting Instagram as she felt too depressed watching everyone’s idyllic life posts and Maldives beach shots when “normally I’m so tired all I want to do is lie in a darkened room”.

Comparisons. Why do we feel the need to make them – and, usually, to our own detriment? It turns out we’re genetically programmed to do it. “Making comparisons is natural, it’s how we as animals judge our self worth, by comparing ourselves to those around us,” says Will Storr, the author of Selfie. “We can’t help but do this. It’s how the brain operates.” Naturally, social media exacerbates the problem and makes other people’s lives seem so much more glamorous/together/loved than ours. “When they study the effects of social media there’s an idea in psychology called Perfectionist Presentation – people choose the most perfect pictures to put on Instagram etc,” he explains. “When we’re surrounded by everybody else’s perfect moments it impacts on our self esteem.”

But well before modern technology came into it, social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the Social Comparison Theory in 1954. “This states that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluation and that they do this by comparing themselves to others,” explains consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, founder of Stem4, a charity for teenagers with mental health issues. “These comparisons can be ‘upwards’ or ‘downwards’” she explains, with upwards being what happens when people compare themselves to those more fortunate than them and downward relating to those less fortunate.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby

So, of course, it isn’t all about the feeds on our phones. We can compare ourselves in any situation and have done so for eons. “I think we can live in lack,” explains Emma Lucy Knowles a life coach, healer, and clairvoyant whose first book The Power of Crystal Healing came out in March 2018. “I’ve definitely experienced it, especially having an older and very successful sibling. You can feel a bit ‘Oh she gets all the good stuff’ and get to a point where you think there isn’t enough for everybody. But that just isn’t true: there is enough.”

Mirroring those thoughts is New York-based Ruby Warrington, author of the bestselling Material Girl, Mystical World and co-founder of Moon Club, an on-line empowerment and spiritual mentoring program aiming to help to support a new generation of change-makers. “Comparison often stems from lack mentality. But this is old paradigm thinking. I believe that the future of commerce will involve more diverse offerings that cater to smaller, niche, and ultimately more loyal and appreciative markets.” In other words, we must learn to be happy for other people’s success, to see it as proof that opportunities exist and that things can – and do – work out.

Krause references Mark Twain’s quote: ‘comparison is the death of joy’ for this issue. This is relevant she says because “some people use comparison as a measure of self-esteem. For individuals with low self-esteem it [comparison] may induce envy, drops in confidence, and may lead to depression.” And it’s all too easy to opt for the ‘wrong’ kind of comparison situation. “People also tend to make a number of mistakes when they compare,” she explains. “For example, they typically compare the worst of themselves against the presumed best of others. This creates a biased view, which can result in negativity or resentment – towards others and towards the self.”

“I’m a big believer that when you celebrate someone else’s success it actually really heightens your own,” says Knowles. So we need to turn our thinking on its head. “Whatever we focus on is what we will create,” says Liz Edlich, author of ‘Get Radical’ and co-founder of Radical Skincare. “So if we see someone else’s life and their finances, family, and physical state as something that we can and will have we should live with a sense of gratitude for its arrival. Celebrate the good fortune of others with the knowledge that there is an abundance of good fortune waiting for our embrace.”

And, if it helps, take hope from the fact that even some of the most successful people in the world have had to overcome the temptation to negatively compare. “As a young makeup artist in New York I was booked to do a Liza Bruce fashion show which featured all supermodels with one name – Cindy, Christy, Linda, Naomi, etc,” recalls the diminutive Bobbi Brown, makeup artist, brand founder and now general wellness guru. “I remember the moment I looked up and saw them standing in lines ready to walk down the runway with their well-oiled bodies and perfectly coiffed hair. I suddenly felt so small. It was then I had an a-ha moment. I said to myself, ‘Don’t go there Bobbi, you will lose’. Those thoughts repeated themselves many times over in my career when I worked with models, actresses and fitness trainers. I had to change my mindset and be grateful for my health and my life and not compare myself to others.”

Very successful people, says Krause, steer clear of the comparison trap. “According to the work of Professor Carole Dweck and Growth Mindset the most successful people don’t tend to compare themselves to others. Instead they will see excellence and talent in others as learning opportunities.”
A little fact so many of us could do well to learn from.

Photo by Priscilla du Preez

How to Change Your Comparison Thinking

Be watchful

Or put another way, learn to “catch your thought, cancel it and replace it with something nice,” says Knowles. While my initial reaction, or lazy ego thought, might be: ‘That’s so unfair, why aren’t I like that?’ I cancel it and replace it with something like ‘Good for her!”. Or I will think ‘Ok that’s not me but I have other strengths’ and then I’ll list those strengths to myself. It’s witnessing yourself on a live level. It can be a hard pattern to get into but persevere.

Be realistic

When it comes to fitness goals Gideon Remfrey, Health, Fitness, and Nutrition Manager at KX and KXU gyms (and an IKIGAI Thought Leader) sees many people coming in comparing themselves to A-listers. “Say they want to look like Angelina Jolie but their body shape is more like a strength athlete,” he says. “We’ll work with them, ask questions and dig deeper, to redefine their goals and what they can achieve. Otherwise they’ll be disappointed and just fall off the fitness wagon.” The only body you can really compare yourself to is your own. For a simply mantra deploy Krause’s simple advice: “avoid perfectionism”.

Be yourself

“When it comes to work, particularly in a landscape where many of us are seeking to pursue entrepreneurial careers that are in alignment with our passions, I often remind myself of this: that there may be others walking a similar path, but the more I infuse my work with my own authentic voice, the more it will be differentiated, and find an audience or client base who truly resonate with it,” says Warrington. And remember too, says Krause, to acknowledge your success.

Be grateful

“I think the reason prayer is such a key part of religious practice is because it’s all about focussing the mind on being thankful and grateful – and this feeds the spirit and helps you concentrate on the good in your life,” says Knowles. “The more you count your blessings the better you feel. If you have to compare then why not consider how lucky you are to have clean running water and don’t have to fight for a basic human right.”

Be passionate

Find something you’ve always wanted to do and start learning how to do it. Follow a passion. “There’s been lots of psychological research that says that in order to be happy we need to find meaning in our lives, to do something that’s meaningful to us,” says Storr. “So there’s the idea of hedonistic happiness – which is taking drugs, eating chocolate, having sex – and then there’s dynamic happiness which is the Aristotelian notion that happiness is in the struggle to achieve, it’s in the perseverance and the striving.”

Or as Krause puts it more simply: “Pursue what you love”. So find your passion and immerse yourself in lessons and learning. You’ll likely find that you stop looking so much at what other people are doing.

Words: Edwina Ings-Chambers

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