Life in Balance

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On Comparing Oneself to Others

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Comparing oneself to others is often the source of unbounded misery for many people. “She’s so talented, and I’m not.” “I wish I were more like him.” “She is so much more successful than I am.” “Why can’t I have what he has?” Most everyone has these types of thoughts from time to time. For some, these thoughts can cause feelings of shame, depression, and worthlessness. These thoughts can have the power to paralyze.

Nothing is less motivating than feeling lesser-than in the light of someone else’s skill or prowess. The destructive thought that often accompanies “He/she is X, and I’m not,” is “So why even try? I’ll never be like that.” It’s easy to fall into despair when we feel like we have no way of achieving what we want. Rather than prompting us to try again, work harder, or try a different strategy, this kind of thinking-trap can cause us to feel hopeless, lethargic, and apathetic – feelings that put a serious damper on productivity. 

While comparing ourselves to others can be a recipe for despair and paralysis, it needn’t always be. It’s all a matter of framing. It’s possible to be motivated by others’ successes rather than paralyzed by them. Rather than framing an experience as “I should be like that person, I’ll never be like that person,” it’s possible to frame an experience as “I want to be like that person, there’s no reason why I can’t be like that person.” It’s the difference between the a) distance between you and a perceived ideal, and b) the distance between you and where you really want to be. The former distance paralyzes and the latter distance mobilizes. 

Of course, making this shift out of a destructive style of thinking isn’t as simple as snapping your fingers or clicking your heels. It takes time and effort, and unfortunately it will feel disingenuous and silly at first. But as the saying goes, “fake it ’til you make it.” Positive self-talk can be a powerful tool in changing destructive thinking patterns into constructive and creative thinking patterns. Positive self-talk is a strategy that is widely used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It involves identifying negative, destructive thoughts, such as “I’ll never be able to do that,” and actively replacing them with positive thoughts, such as “I could do that if I really tried.”

To the seasoned practitioner of self-destruction, replacing a negative thought that has been reflexive for so long will not come easily. To start, the use of written Positive Affirmations can be helpful. Positive affirmations are positive statements that we can say to ourselves to help motivate ourselves to take on a task or a challenge, or just to change thinking style. An example of a positive affirmation is “There is no reason I can’t achieve what I really want out of life.” It may sound cheesy, but it works. Writing this positive phrase down and sticking it up somewhere conspicuous, such as a bathroom mirror or bedroom door, can help slowly instil the message in our minds over time. Written affirmations help us to repeat positive messages to ourselves without having to do the work of actually coming up with them in a negative moment. At first, the message seems stupid and disingenuous. Then, perhaps the message provokes the slightest flash of the possibility an alternative style of thinking in a negative moment, even if it’s just a flash. Then, slowly but surely, we spend increasingly more time dwelling on this alternative style of thinking, giving it more credence. We find that dwelling on the possibility of positivity helps us feel better about the future. And when we feel better about the future, we’re able to think rationally about what our next steps to success are. Before we know it, we’re we’re well on our way out of the pit of despair, and maybe we are even able to do some planning around challenges that need to be overcome. Then, maybe the written affirmation won’t be necessary, and just saying it out loud is helpful enough. Then eventually, maybe the message can be internalized and it will be possible to counteract a negative thought with a positive thought alone. Then maybe the negative thoughts will become more infrequent, or even disappear altogether. 

Not convinced? Try – just try – writing yourself a positive affirmation and putting it on your mirror, or keeping one on you in your pocket, or even stored on your phone. Yes, you will feel silly the first time you use it. But give it a chance and see if it makes even the slightest difference in your thinking. Next time you find yourself comparing yourself to others and feeling terrible about it, force yourself to look at your affirmation – just look at it. It’ll help remind you that it is possible to feel motivated by others’ success rather than paralyzed by them, and that it is possible to change a destructive style of thinking to a style of thinking that will help get your closer to achieving your goals. 


Michelle Scott

Arts Program Co-ordinator


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