We’ve all been trapped in the cage of comparison at one time or another. We look around at someone’s home, family, body, vacation, car, and think: Why not me? How come they get to have that?
We usually know it’s a futile exercise, and still… we compare.
It’s a mental loop without much of an upside for so many reasons.
- The information we use to compare ourselves with others is largely unreliable (hello, social media).
- Almost never does comparison itself lead to better results for us in our own lives. Rather than focusing on our own dreams and desires, we get stuck in a looking-over-our-shoulder pattern that’s a massive time suck, a distraction, and an energy zapper.
- Comparison can be brutally isolating, making us feel separated from people we may not even know yet because of stories we’ve told ourselves about how unfortunate we are, how fortunate they are, and how far away we are from each other.
We know all this, and yet we walk into the trap time and time again.
The Misinformation of Professional Comparison
Comparison of our professional lives to someone else’s isn’t much more helpful than any other kind of comparison, yet I don’t know anyone who hasn’t compared their work, their perceived pace or level of growth, reward, satisfaction, or visibility to their idea of someone else’s success.
Our careers matter to us, so it’s no wonder we’re looking around to see how we’re doing vis a vis other people.
When the comparison trap is at its most pernicious, we perceive that others in our network:
- Worry and struggle less about momentum, growth, compensation, and recognition
- Are experiencing a peaceful sense of “I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to do with my professional life”
- Move through their leadership decisions with more certainty and confidence than we do
- Are getting paid twice as much as us for half the work (a literal comparison quote from a client)
Even those of us who have found our professional place of satisfaction fall subject to wondering if the grass is just a little greener in someone else’s yard.
Just recently, I found myself freaking out like a caged bird attempting to measure my pace with someone I didn’t even know, based on one thing she said in one meeting. I could feel the resentment, the self-doubt, and the indignation flare up based on a single sentence.
The comparing thoughts I was having were not only uncharitable (and wow were they uncharitable) but not one of the stories I was telling myself was grounded in any real data, just the stuff in my head. These stories made me feel briefly better about myself, and then terrible about myself, and worse, created distance between me and someone I had yet to meet.
So, what can we do when we have thoughts like these?
Here are a few approaches I find helpful for my clients (and myself) when it comes to navigating the comparison trap.
When you’re stuck in the comparison trap…
Comparison happens. In my view, it’s not worth compounding an already unpleasant experience with a double whammy of self-incriminating judgments, muttering about the awful kind of people who are jealous in the first place. It’s ok that you have these thoughts and feelings.
Comparison often comes from a place of desire for our own growth and progress. It’s totally ok to acknowledge that we want things, we want to do well, and we want to be seen and recognized. It’s also ok, albeit harder, to acknowledge that we don’t have everything we desire.
This experience is an invitation to understand ourselves more deeply.
Stay curious by asking yourself: What am I actually feeling? Is it envy? Maybe some regret? What else?
In my work with clients, when someone is willing to express that they feel jealous of someone in their world, I know we’re on to something important. This feeling starts to tell us that we’ve come across something you long for, that’s meaningful, that matters.
If a client starts to express regret that they haven’t acted in service of something they want, we can work with that, too. This leads to a purposeful conversation about identifying a priority and making different choices about our energy or other investments.
The point is that the strong feelings are clues, so rather than shoving them down or beating ourselves up for them, let’s figure out what they are trying to tell us.
Reconnect To Reality.
One of the surest ways to weaken the comparison monster is to dilute the tales it tells with a dose of reality.
Here’s what I mean: a client left a very toxic job in digital marketing three years ago. She was dealing with a lousy boss and unpromising leadership situation with no real path towards resolution.
She decided to exit and didn’t have a new job lined up so, like a lot of people in her industry, took on a short-term consulting job as a stop-gap.
Three years later, that first consulting job has turned into practice with multiple clients, with brands you know and love among them. She has repeat and ongoing new clients. She meets her financial goals and enjoys flexibility with her schedule.
Still, she wonders if she should return recruiter calls and return to working inside a company full time.
When we talk about the choices she’s considering, she laments the fact that she may lose the flexibility and the independence she has now.
So, why would she consider going back into a business?
“I feel like I’m floundering, and am always working so hard to manage my pipeline and sort out what’s coming next.” She shared. “I’m struggling more than other business owners are.”
“How do you know this?” I asked. She was quiet for a moment.
Comparison thrives in isolation.
It weakens its grip on us when we connect to the reality in the world.
During our session, she agreed to go out to talk to other business owners to collect data about their real experiences, including their doubts, second thoughts, and worries. It won’t surprise you that what she found in the reality of other business owners was a far cry from what she’d originally thought.
Comparison is easy with partial information. When we really listen to the depth and details of other people’s experiences, we realize how much closer our stories are to each other.
This recalibration to what’s really going on can allow us to give ourselves and others compassion as we all work to create lives and careers we’re proud of.
…Are You Navigating The Comparison Trap Too?
If you find yourself resonating with any of the stories or strategies I’ve shared here, I’d love to hear from you!