The Comparison Trap: How to Get Back on Track When Others Succeed

Janet Stilson
Published in
5 min readNov 8, 2022

Photo by Gianluca Carenza on Unsplash

There once was a belly dancer named Carmen. She wowed crowds from Coney Island to Cairo. Really hot men dropped at her feet when she did the Turkish Figure Eight. They didn’t call her Magic Hips for nothin’.

Another dancer named Stardust won the International Belly Dance Championship, and Carmen was back a ways in the rankings. She just couldn’t curb her sense of despair and jealousy. She felt like calling the whole shimmy-thing off. Maybe she should just become a bookkeeper for her shady uncle’s dump truck biz like he always wanted.

My fictional Carmen just danced into a very particular circle of hell: comparing herself to someone with similar aspirations who scored a coveted victory. It can floor anyone who toils long and hard, fueled by dreams, talent, and tenacity. This I know from personal experience.

How do you extricate yourself if you get caught in that comparison trap? It’s a tough question that many of us don’t spend enough time thinking about. Where’s the first aid kit when we’re inflicted by this type of wound?

I asked around. And in doing so, I realized that even those among us who are very successful need a ladder, now and then, to climb out of the comparison muck.

Getting Back on Track

Among those I turned to is Jenna Zark — an award-winning novelist and playwright. I wrote about Jenna and her excellent biographical book, “Crooked Lines,” in a recent blog post. Jenna explains that when she’s faced with that problem, she tries to shut it down immediately by going for a walk, talking with friends, or distracting herself in some other way, such as reading a book or watching a movie.

“But the best way I’ve found to get out of comparison mode is to work on my own projects, and if I’m between projects, to think about where I might go with a new one,” Jenna adds. “Comparison is about thinking you’re ‘less than’ someone else; working on your own writing is about YOU, and what you want to give to the world.”

Another pal, the comedy writer Leesa Dean, provided me with her own (cough) prescription: “It’s easy. Drink yourself under the table. And if that doesn’t work, REALLY drink yourself under the table.”

Leesa’s sold two pilots to cable networks and is the creator and producer of the popular comedy storytelling chat BlerdDating. On a more serious note, she says: “I learned a long time ago to give myself 24 hours to vent, have a mini pity party, and then just move on. Even if you feel your career is going nowhere. Move on. The best way for me to do that? Write. Ultimately, being passionate about whatever project you’re working on blurs out the noise and puts everything in perspective.”

If the “I’m not good enough” syndrome sinks its claws deeply enough, it can lead to dire actions, even suicide. That’s been the experience of a highly successful former ballerina and Broadway dancer named Séverine. She tells me that she learned to extricate herself from a cycle of low self-esteem by following the teachings of the authors Louise Hay and Eckhart Tolle.

“One day I heard Louise Hay explain that these episodes were born of thoughts, just clusters of thoughts. And thoughts could be changed. I asked myself how many more years before I could simply start to love myself just as I was, for all I had accomplished and all I had left undone?” Séverine says. “How much longer will I go on withholding my approval, my compassion, my kindness from myself? What had I ever done to deserve such harsh judgement of myself?

“How is it that we are so ready to dismiss all the efforts, sacrifices, dedication that it took for us to get where we are?” Séverine continues. “From whom, in our life, did we learn to minimize our accomplishments in such a dismissive way? Is it too late for us to learn gratefulness for all our years of effort, and growth, and learning? I KNOW that my body, my mind, my heart did the very best they were capable of in all my years of working. I didn’t have the body of a Mikhail Baryshnikov. I didn’t have the vocal cords of a Barbara Streisand, but I still sang and danced with all my heart.

“I realized it was up to me to advocate for myself, to counteract the onslaught of what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain body by learning to let go, to relinquish every single attacking thought, every single story of ‘what I am’ and ‘what I’m not’ and stay open to what I could be in this present moment. I nourished myself with many beautiful thoughts such as: ‘Can I be better today than I was yesterday?’” Séverine says.

Dare, Don’t Compare

I agree — with Séverine, Leesa, and Jenna — on all counts. I’m grateful for their wisdom. See why they’re my friends? At the same time, I also wonder if perhaps, just perhaps there’s something more to consider. When we find ourselves in a comparison freefall, is it worthwhile to examine ourselves — after we’ve screamed into a pillow, called a friend, and eaten a giant bowl of ice cream. I’m not suggesting that we pick at our proverbial wounds, but instead step back and reassess how we’re using our talents and time.

Are there ways we can “play” at a deeper creative level? Are there new routines that might be explored that will expand our work and powers of attraction? Are there new organizations we might join that will widen our knowledge and networking abilities?

I like to think that Carmen the belly dancer did that work. And she figured out that there was nothing she should be doing differently. She just needed to keep dancing her heart out. And over time, she gave joy to more and more people. They rewarded her in ways she hadn’t expected. (Just had to give her a Hollywood ending.)

The point is, whatever we do, or decide against, needs to be done in a spirit of love for ourselves and our work. And as my friends noted, by digging into our passionate work, regardless of other people’s success, we’ll find our own way to soar.

Janet Stilson

Janet Stilson’s cyberpunk sci-fi novel THE JUICE, was published to rave reviews. She also won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.