How to use comparison to motivate positive changes in your life

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Photo by Kelsey Schork

Let’s get real. We’ve all wanted something that someone else has and sometimes, wished we were someone else entirely. We’ve all felt intimidated, insecure, and small around someone who exudes “greatness.” Daily, we stack ourselves up against our neighbors, friends, competitors, and even random strangers, in hopes that we’re landing closer to the top of the food chain. Comparing ourselves to others is so common and frequent that often we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Comparison can be a killer. It is a thief in the night that will rob your confidence from you when you least expect it. We know this, and we do it anyway. No one is exempt.

You’ll be feeling great about the fact that you did your laundry, ate one vegetable, and texted your mom back, when BAM — comparison shows up to remind you that Becky just published three books, bought her mom a house in a gated community, adopted a child, just finished a half-marathon in record time, and to top if off, got new highlights and became Miss Universe. Dang, I thought putting my socks away was a worthy accomplishment.

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It doesn’t help that we live in a cyber world that serves comparison to us on a beautiful, silver Instagram platter. It’s virtually impossible to escape. Catch that? Social media lets us know that everyone is better looking, better parents, better cooks, better artists, better vacationers and overall better at being happy. It’s a daily inventory of how far behind you are in life. Oh, and how much better Becky’s skin looks because she started using coconut oil on it.

I tried coconut oil once and my face broke out in a furious roar of cystic acne. Don’t believe everything you see on the internet, folks, and don’t assume everything you see Becky doing on the internet is right for you.

Attempting to quit comparison altogether, though glamorous, is like saying, “I will live the rest of my life on celery juice and celery juice alone!”

The problem is not that we compare but how far into the rabbit hole we go. Believe it or not, there are ways to use comparison that help your growth instead of hurting it. We’ll dive into how to do that, but ignoring the fact that you compare yourself to others will not be part of the process. Attempting to quit comparison altogether, though glamorous, is like saying, “I will live the rest of my life on celery juice and celery juice alone!” That is an unsustainable goal and will only set you up for failure.

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Photo by Bridget Williams

Weekly, I have students in my office — now cyber office — talking about comparing themselves in self-deprecating ways to other dancers. The interesting part is they speak less about the comparison itself and more about the disappointment that it’s happening. They want to know why and solicit advice on how to stop. But it doesn’t stop and it never will. We just have to learn how to live with it so we are using it to push ourselves and not punish ourselves.

My advice is always the same: “See it, feel it, use it.”

It’s important to peel back the layers of the comparison and be honest with yourself about what the comparison is showing you. Don’t deny any of your feelings. Instead, learn why they are surfacing so you can develop practices that use a seemingly negative experience to inspire positive change in your life.

As with any goal, if you want to achieve it, you better be ready to put in the work. Buckle up and hunker down and get real with yourself, and believe you’re worthy of the work it’s going to take.

SO, how do we begin to get out of the comparison rut and, dare I say — motivated?

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Photo by Dale & Fionna Altmann

Phase 1: Facts over feeling.

Try to step outside of your feelings and look at the facts. An unhealthy, rabbit hole comparison produces a powerful feeling that clouds your ability to see the comparison objectively. There is a reason we have two sides of our brain. Here is a case where we need to call on our left brain and logic to help us break down the equation of the comparison. Let emotion and the right brain have a lunch break.

Iron out the facts first. Let’s imagine you are Dancer 1 and are constantly comparing yourself to Dancer 2.

Fact 1: Dancer 2 grabs my attention in every single class.

Fact 2: Dancer 2 stands in the front, goes first in every group, and asks and answers a lot of questions.

Fact 3: Dancer 2 wears black socks, is a vegan, and drinks celery juice before class.

Now list facts about the comparison and how it pertains to you.

Fact 1: I am not paying attention to my own dancing. I know more about Dancer 2’s dancing than my own.

Fact 2: I stand in the back. I go last in every group. I never ask questions or answer them.

Fact 3: I hate socks, I eat cheeseburgers twice a week, and I drink an extra-large coffee with double cream and sugar before class.

In this phase, you’re looking at what is overtly true only. Don’t try to solve the problem (which is absolutely what you’re going to want to do). Don’t. Because if we were to solve the problem based solely on the facts, we could conclude that all you need to do is become a black sock wearing, celery juice drinking, question asker, stand in the front of every class person, and you too, will be the shining star that you think Dancer 2 is. Simply mimicking someone else’s choices is not understanding what the comparison is revealing. Remember my coconut oil copy and paste? #acne

Phase 2: Identification.

What is this feeling?

Identify the feeling and give it a name. Is it jealousy, discouragement, deflation, doubt, worry, fear? Be specific. This phase is the most difficult because our pride disables our ability to see clearly. Admitting you’re jealous is humbling, but guess what? You’re a human. Don’t waste precious energy in denial when instead, you could be spending that time learning about yourself so you’re one step closer to becoming the ultimate badass you know you’re destined to be. Be brave enough to feel. Be humble enough to learn. Know you’re worthy enough to evolve.

Once you’ve identified the feeling, identify what you’re seeing or experiencing that is making you feel this way. Specificity is key. Is their confidence, consistency, boldness, intelligence, unconventional way of being in the world? Identify it with as much detail as possible.

What you feel:

“I am jealous.”

What you’re seeing/experiencing that prompts this:

“Whenever Dancer 2 takes class, she always stands in front and doesn’t shy away from owning the space she’s in. When Dancer 2 goes in the first group, she always struggles through the first round but does not emotionally break down. She works by herself off to the side until she has it. She is focused. She claims her space proudly even if she doesn’t do everything perfectly. She has a lot of energy in class. She asks questions, not just to be heard, but in a way that pushes the whole class forward.”

Look at all the detail in that experience: the environment, the spatial orientation, the consistency in Dancer 2’s behavior. There is so much to learn about yourself in that situation. Peel it back.

Phase 3: What is this telling me?

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Photo by Eric Bandiero

I believe we are mirror images of each other. When you are drawn or even repulsed by something in someone else, your own self is trying to reveal something in you. Capture a moment of comparison like a video or photograph so you’re able to study it in depth. Don’t ignore it. Memorize it in vivid detail.

When you notice another person’s self-confidence, recognize that your inner self-confidence plant is asking to be watered. Work on building yourself up so your confidence grows, and the room for jealousy shrinks. Notice I said “shrink” and not disappear. Yup, that’s right — you’re still a human.

I do an exercise where I ask my students, “Who are we watching and why?” After they perform a combination, I ask the dancers to point out a dancer they found themselves watching and to share the reason why. After they share their reasons and we celebrate the dancer, I refer back to the dancer that pointed them out and ask, “What is this showing you about your own dancing?”

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Photo by Caroline Bert

Often, it is a beautiful exchange of humility, graciousness, understanding and motivation that could have easily been overlooked had we not slowed down to really see what we’re looking at. We close by thanking the dancer who demonstrated something for us to work towards.

I love that this practice produces a sense of community and support in a very competitive field. It doesn’t pretend comparison doesn’t exist, but instead meets it head-on, turning it into a healthy experience. Asking the dancers to look at each other is not only accepting comparison as a reality but re-calibrating it into something that is celebratory, motivating, and personally revealing.

Phase 4: Take action.

You feel jealous.

You set down the feeling and lay out the facts.

“Whenever Becky takes class, she always stands in front and doesn’t shy away from owning the space she’s in. She claims her space proudly even if she doesn’t do everything perfectly.”

You identify the feeling with specificity.

“I am jealous of her courage and boldness.”

You ask yourself what that feeling tells you about yourself.

“I need to work on my courage and boldness.”

Ask yourself questions to help identify what actions you could take to lead to a feeling you want. When do you feel courageous?

When I put myself in the first group going across the floor. When I do every exercise twice. When I stretch before class, allowing me to take more risks with my dancing. When I come to class early to focus. When I spend time getting myself ready in the morning. When I start each day with a positive meditation.”

Allow these answers to form action steps:

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Photo by Kyunguk Kim

“I am going to go across the floor in the first and last group every class. I will stand in a place where I am seen by my classmates and instructor so I am forced into making confident choices.”

Case Study: Eyeliner as an actionable item.

I am the person who won’t come to class without makeup. Like, ever. As a teenager, I had a teacher point me out in front of the entire class and ask why I was wearing so much makeup. Aside from being totally humiliated, I stopped wearing makeup to class for years in hopes to blend in with the “natural” dancers.

I stopped feeling like me and that tribe of dancers still didn’t accept me. I wasted precious time and too many years without eyeliner motivated by a negative comparison. I wanted to be accepted and perceived as a “serious modern dancer” and thought if I looked hairier and was impartial to my wooly eyebrows and mustache, I’d get one step closer to my dream. See the rabbit hole?

That unhealthy comparison pulled me down. But using comparison to motivate positive change would be what got me back up.

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Photo by Kelsey Schork

During a class at the Jacobs Pillow Dance festival, I became immediately enamored and most definitely jealous of one specific dancer in the room. I was conflicted because at the same time that I was drawn to her, I was also jealous of her. I felt the daunting knowledge that this would be only one of many such cases in my life so I had better figure out how to navigate this mess. This was the first time I employed my own model for using comparison to gain positive momentum in my own life.

It dawned on me that I was drawn to her confidence and individuality. As I questioned my own confidence and personal sense of individuality, I realized I didn’t have enough of either. I rolled through years — especially adolescent years — where I would compare myself to other girls in every way imaginable. That was getting me nowhere, fast.

I started to identify the aspects I was so drawn to in her. Simply, that girl in class was unequivocally herself. Why?

  1. She had a super short hair cut (that she rocked) but was a real stand out in the sea of girls with tight buns on their heads. I always thought that was so bold. I loved it.
  2. She laughed when she messed up but then got right into business again.
  3. She failed a lot.
  4. She tried even more.
  5. She engaged with the other class members in a genuine way but was not concerned with their approval of her.
  6. She was curious about learning and it made her an incredibly interesting dancer to watch.
  7. She had a gorgeous figure that was muscular and feminine — a change from the body types we are taught to strive for as young women dancers. This was particularly noticable as I was embarrased of my own body at the time.
  8. She was not shy about taking up space with her powerful body either. I really loved this because she subconsciously told me that it was ok for me to take up space in my non-ballerina body too.
  9. She represented confidence and individuality. These were inextricably linked.
  10. She was memorable and contagious.

She was the perfect role model and she didn’t even know it! After listing all of these aspects, I realized my own confidence lacked simply because I had not embraced my individuality fully. I spent the next five years figuring out who I was. To this day, one of the comments I receive most is, “You’re just so… YOU!”

One of my action steps? Eyeliner.

Too much eyeliner, super blonde hair, and a ferocity for flying. Photo by Rachel Rizzo
Too much eyeliner, super blonde hair, and a ferocity for flying. Photo by Rachel Rizzo
Photo by Rachel Rizzo

Today, you’re damn right I beat this face with full lashes and lipstick before every single class. I do this because it gives me confidence. We all have unique lucky charms that help us operate at our full capacity. To note: my daily makeup time is also when I mediate and pray. While my hands are focused and occupied, my brain and heart are free to hear and feel. It is my ritual. Do what is right for you. Time spent figuring that out will always be time well spent.

Becky, Revisited

Let’s go back to Becky for a moment. You remember her? Miss-Universe-winning, marathon-running, child-adopting, book-writing, anomaly of a human? Maybe you can’t do all of this and thrive but also, maybe your ambition is too low. Perhaps that inner voice is asking you to reach for more and stop settling for only putting your socks away.

Maybe you need to cultivate a more meaningful and active relationship with your mom. Becky was able to be materially generous, but maybe you can be more generous with your time.

Maybe your self-worth has been dwindling, and Becky’s highlights nudge you to practice some self-love and treat your worthy self to a new haircut.

Maybe Becky training for a half-marathon is asking you to not to quit on your own goals. To work diligently in the direction of your dreams, no matter how difficult it may seem.

Maybe Becky adopting a child is asking you to spend time thinking beyond your training to how you’re serving others. Maybe you become a big brother or sister.

You don’t need to do exactly what Becky is doing. I certainly will never slather coconut oil on my face again, but I did look into other holistic skincare products and now worship apple cider vinegar and use it as my daily toner. It not only cleared up the cystic acne, but saved me a boatload of money on expensive skin products, and I am feeling good about using a product that is void of chemical fillers. Thanks, Becky!

Comparison is a real, honest part of living in a human body. Avoid suppressing your feelings. Feel them, own them, and then get curious. It just might change the game.

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Photo by Stefan Ludwig

Written by

Artist, Educator, and Optimist. Clinical Assistant Professor at the University at Buffalo.

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