Using comparison as a force for good
We all experience comparison in very different ways. So different, in fact, that it’s quite difficult to write about every possible situation. Each of us needs a toolkit to recognise when those feelings crop up, how to confront them, what to do during a negative spiral and how to use them as a force for good. Here’s mine, in the hope that it inspires you to develop yours.
In my 20s, comparison was a dominating presence in my career. I frequently felt that situations at work were were unfair. Sometimes it was justified, and I channelled those feelings into propelling my career. And sometimes it was a complete waste of time and energy which could have been used for far more useful things.
In my experience and through conversations with others, feelings of comparison lessen as you get older, more experienced and more content in life. This is certainly the case for me in my 30s. This is a generalisation of course, and all of us have life experiences which can throw us off track at any time.
What I have learnt is that comparison needs to be used in the right way. Stopping it is not possible and ignoring it only means it will crop up later. If you can learn to confront comparison and use it as a force for good, it can even become your superpower.
Recognising and addressing comparison
Comparison is fairly simple. It’s looking at another person or situation and comparing it to yourself. It can make you feel jealous, angry, contented, inspired, relieved - the whole range of emotions.
You know when comparison has gone too far when it’s making you feel bad about yourself. This is the time to stop the spiral and address what’s making you feel this way.
My process is to coach myself. First, I will ask what’s really going on:
What’s triggered this? What emotions am I feeling? Is the source of comparison really the issue? What exactly do I feel negative about?
Next, I will ask myself whether the feelings are something I want to action or not:
What’s really going on here? What could be going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about? What can I do about how I am feeling? Do I need time away from this person? Is this a prompt for something I need to do?
To demonstrate how this works in practice, here are two real-life situations I have previously dealt with:
1. Someone on Instagram has shared progress pictures of their house renovation, and it’s making me feel bad.
What’s really going on?
I am feeling triggered because they have renovated their house faster than me. My house isn’t finished, it’s taking forever and I can’t afford to do it all at once. I feel jealous. I am annoyed at the plumber who isn’t returning my calls.
Do I want to take any action?
They said their parents are builders, which explains why everything has happened so quickly. I have seen them working evenings and weekends on their house, which I don’t want to do. The speed of their renovation has absolutely no impact on the speed of mine. I am going to congratulate them and take action by calling my plumber!
2. A colleague at work has received a promotion and I don’t think it’s deserved
What’s really going on?
This situation is reminding me that I want a promotion and I didn’t get one. I’ve been working really hard and feeling quite stressed which is making me react more emotionally. I’m feeling worried I will never get a promotion.
Do I want to take any action?
This person also works really hard, in fact they often work late which I don’t want to do. Their success isn’t a comment on my success and actually I don’t want their job. I am going to speak to my mentor about my career to make me feel like I am taking action. I will remember that I have chosen flexibility over chasing job titles. I know this feeling will pass.
We will each have our version of these questions as we are unique and triggered by different things. You will have your own process too. It might be speaking your responses out loud, writing them down or chatting through with a friend. If you can learn to coach yourself through comparison, it’s the first step to using it as a force for good.
Taking positive action
Not every situation will require a big action on your part. A chat with a friend, some time out from social media or time to focus on a particular activity or task can help to rest your mind.
But, when you see somebody and think, I want what they have, this is the time to take action.
It goes without saying that you are not looking to copy, to sabotage or diminish somebody else’s achievements. I approach positive comparison with inspiration, celebration and collaboration in mind, asking:
What can I learn from what they have done and how they did it? Is their achievement do-able for me? What would my version of this look like?
Two situations in my life stand out where I put this into practice:
- Becoming a marketing manager
My marketing career was slow off the mark; I graduated into the credit crunch and spent eight years as a marketing exec, desperate to be a marketing manager. This is when I started using feelings of comparison for good. I looked at other people’s career paths, what qualifications and experience they had and what they earnt.
I learnt that I was actually a very well-paid marketing exec with lots of relevant experience. I was missing a marketing qualification, so I did my CIM Level 6 Diploma. And I needed to move to a bigger company with more chance of promotion, so I did that too.
In the end, I was a marketing manager for just three years before becoming head of marketing. I am open to sharing my journey because I know how frustrating it is when it feels like your career is going nowhere.
2. Starting my own business
Although starting my own marketing business was a long-term dream, I took it seriously when I saw a younger ex-colleague had done it first. I recognised the feelings of comparison when I saw her business launch, and I knew I felt that way because it reminded me that I had been putting off my freelance dream. In my head, you had to be a certain age, with years of experience and money in the bank.
She made me realise I was going to put this off forever if I didn’t just do it. My version was a slightly different business, but I did it. And when I launched, I heard from two ex-colleagues who saw my launch, who were now thinking about going freelance.
A recurring theme is to focus on you. Much like when you are a child and learning something new, you are told to stop looking at what the others are doing and focus on yourself. On this theme, I have some parting thoughts:
- Surround yourself with positive people who will celebrate your achievements with you. It can be hard when the negative people in your life are colleagues or family, but you can limit your exposure to them.
- Stop hate following and doom scrolling on social media. Strictly limit your time on social media apps and curate your feed so it’s filled with people and things you love.
- Get honest feedback and advice from people you trust. Take the feedback on board.
- Learn from different role models. Don’t discount someone’s experience because they are older or younger or come from a different industry. Inspiration comes from all sorts of people.
- Keep your suspicion of new people and change in check. Celebrate and compliment others and share your knowledge.
And finally, if your feelings of comparison get you down to the point where it’s seriously affecting your mental health, please have a look into getting professional support from a counsellor.