Several mature women are practicing yoga in a gym.

Personality begins where comparison leaves off.
Be unique. Be memorable. Be confident. Be proud.
~ Shannon L. Alder

I’m thick in National Novel Writing Month, and already I can see a lot of posts on social media where writers are sharing their word counts for each day. There’s a lot of camaraderie about these posts, and a lot of encouragement and support. But then there is also the inevitable comparisons, which usually happen within our writer-brains but which sometimes overspill online. For instance, these are the types of post I’ve been seeing, and their possible accompanying thoughts in parentheses:

I only wrote 150 words today. They wrote 3,467. (I’m such a failure.)

I wrote 3,467 words today. They only wrote 150. (I’m so much better than they are!)

I didn’t write at all today. My baby was sick so I had to look after her. (All these people are so much better at this than I am. I’m so crap.)

I took the long weekend off and worked on my novel constantly. I just hit 50,000! (See what I did! I’m awesome. You’re not!)

Now, none of these situations are inherently wrong — but the potential thoughts, rooted in comparison and judgement, are toxic and don’t serve anyone.

I see this in musical communities too, particularly when students are both learning the same piece of music. There’s a natural competitiveness that goes on, but there is also a fertile breeding ground for comparison, judgement, and self-doubt. Whether Jessica learns the piece any quicker than Carl is irrelevant here; the learning and musical expression are what counts — and these often get overlooked. (And they should not be compared in a toxic light, either.)

As humans, we naturally assess, compare, and pass judgements all the time. When we first meet someone we automatically make a bunch of assumptions — judgements — based on the other person’s race, appearance, physicality, background, and so on. These may or may not change over time. We may also, if that person is connected to us via a similar interest or field, make snap comparisons that can either uplift us (an ego-stroke) or discourage us (our inner critic takes over). These can be useful and helpful, yes — but they can also be toxic to our mental and emotional health, as well as to our relationships.

For instance, when I used to go to yoga, I found it difficult because I was often the largest woman in the room. I’m not usually ashamed or overly critical about my body shape or size, for various reasons — but yoga class was a different kettle of fish entirely. For one, it’s outside of my comfort zone. For another, it was full of people who were thinner and more flexible than I am. Comparisons ran rampant in my mind, but I turned to my long-time meditation and mindfulness practices to keep myself focused on what my chronically-ill body could do that day. It helped, but later on when I was tired my inner critic took a sledgehammer to my emotions. (This is not the reason I’m not attending yoga right now, by the way.)

Societies are perfectly primed for situations like this, and social comparison can be seen as a root cause of (on one hand) healthy competition or (on the other hand) depression and suicide. This latter is even more prevalent now that we have social media, and we’ve all probably heard stories — positive and negative — about the impact of Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, for example.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love social media. It can be a lifesaver in a lot of ways. But it can also be tricky to navigate the online world, and trickier still to navigate the impact of said world on our offline life. Humans are naturally gregarious, and so having both online and offline situations where we interact with others can bring us into social comparison, where we naturally compare ourselves to those around us.

This could be in an unhealthy way, because comparison within friend groups can encourage its bedfellow jealousy to get involved. Suddenly friends are enemies, someone to better, to beat. Any shred of the ties that bind are forgotten.

Also forgotten is the fact that the people we compare ourselves to are not perfect. They just give the illusion they are. So we are comparing our “messy” selves to their “perfect” selves, and receiving the wrong message as a result. I’ll tell you now, my life is messy and imperfect. I’m grateful my husband understands that mess and embraces me for it. (As Taylor says, “I’m a mess but I’m the mess that you wanted.”)

We can’t compare our messy beginnings to someone else’s perfectly-curated Instagram feed or our Three Blind Mice to their Bach Sonata. It’s unfair to both of us — and who said life was fair anyway?

Something we can do is compare ourselves to ourselves — only just in a different timeframe. I can look at my writing from fifteen years ago and compare it to my writing today, and I can see where I’ve grown and where I’ve still got weaker habits. I can look at where I was on the piano before an accident last summer and afterwards. I can look at the work I’ve done with a physiotherapist and how that has helped get me back to playing.

I can also look at where I am now and where I’d like to be. I’m at just over 5,000 words with my NaNoWriMo novel at the moment. And that’s okay. I’m a tenth of the way there. This time next month, I’d like 50,000+ words under my belt. So I can look at that comparison and work out daily goals to help me get there — in this case, aiming for more than 1,667 words each day will get me there.

What I can’t do is look at what the other participants are doing and use that comparison as an indication of my success or failure, or my ability to write. I can’t look at the thinner, more flexible lady on the yoga mat next to me and allow her yoga experience to define my own. I can’t compare my growing piano skills to that of my classically-trained pianist husband and assume I’m rubbish and I’ll never get there.

I can look at other people’s abilities, achievements, failures, and experiences and use that to help encourage them or inspire myself. That’s different and that empowers both of us, which is a win-win for everyone concerned.

The point is: I can’t look at anyone’s mat but my own, so that’s where I’ll keep my eyes. This can be hard to do, so if a helping hand is needed, you know where I am.

Photo by Ekta Agarwal on Unsplash.

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