How to Stop the Cycle of "Compare and Despair"
This post is adapted from my new book ‘The Power of Self-Kindness: How to Transform Your Relationship With Your Inner Critic,’ which is out now in ebook, paperback and audiobook. To find out more and start healing your relationship with your inner critic and yourself, click here. Otherwise, keep reading to discover how to shift "compare and despair" into "compare and rise up."
When I first became interested in personal growth, I went to a seminar hosted by a woman who was a self-proclaimed “life coach to the stars”. Several women in the group were talking about comparing themselves to other people, and each time one of them talked about their experiences, the life coach would interrupt, saying, “You just need to stop it, you need to stop comparing yourself to other people.” Someone would start sharing a personal story or situation and she would jump in, saying “Uh huh huh, that’s you comparing yourself to other people. You need to stop that.”
“So . . . how do we stop?” I asked.
“You just do. You just stop,” she repeated for the umpteenth time, now sounding somewhat irritated. I left wondering if there was something I was missing. Comparison was plaguing my life at this time. I wanted to stop with all my heart and soul, so why couldn’t I? Especially when this expert (and she is by no means alone in communicating this message) was saying it was that simple: I just needed to stop.
This question stayed with me for the next few years until I heard a coach called Tanya Geisler talk about the golden shadow. Up to this point, I’d been taking a “compare-and-despair” approach. I’d compare then despair, not only because I’d judge myself against other people and find myself lacking, but also because I thought I shouldn’t be comparing myself to others in the first place; bad Hannah! (There’s that spiral of self-recrimination again.)
What Tanya explained was that comparison – like the inner critic – isn’t something to be feared and avoided, nor is it something to stifle. Approached from a place of acceptance, comparison is a goldmine of insight and awareness about ourselves. We might put other people on a pedestal and feel we come up lacking in comparison.
But if we dig down and specify where exactly we're comparing ourselves and what qualities we perceive ourselves as lacking compared to them, we have found our golden shadow: the feelings, traits or qualities that we want to embody more in our own lives. When we compare ourselves to other people, the particular aspects we focus on as part of that comparison are a signpost to unfulfilled potential in our own lives. We are capable of being these things too, it’s just at some point we have disowned these traits within ourselves and adopted a different identity instead.
This perspective has transformed the way I approach comparison. Rather than being something I chastise myself for and try to push down, it’s now something I approach with acceptance and curiosity. That’s not to say I don’t still compare and despair at times. I see a friend, a colleague or a public figure sharing photos of their life, describing a recent success or sharing a pithy wisdom bomb. And although I feel happy for them, there can still be a tinge of something bittersweet underneath that, a sense of inadequacy. Because my kitchen doesn’t look that good, I definitely can’t do handstand splits – let alone on a windy rock next to the ocean – I don’t have a New York Times bestseller (yet), and I rarely feel as confident, sorted and creative as other people often seem to be. But when I dig down and specify where I’m comparing myself and what qualities I perceive myself as lacking compared to them, I’ve found my golden shadow. Those aspects I’m focusing on are a signpost to unfulfilled potential in my own life, unfulfilled needs and disowned selves.
Of course, comparison can also be based on outdated beliefs about how I should be living that I no longer agree with, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference. For me, this appears as a difference in how the comparison feels physically. Potential-related comparison feels like sparks, a sense of longing, a desire for growth. Outdated comparison feels heavy, weighted and more like it’s dragging me down than lifting me up.
Want to explore where comparison shows up for you and the role it plays in your life? You’ll find a list of questions you can use to explore this in more depth in the book. Find out more and get your copy here.