When I first started teaching in England, I loved the idea of school uniforms.
I’d seen how cruel students could be about the clothes their classmates wore and thought this was a much better system. Of course, I was being naïve.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that people will always find something to compare. In the case of these prep school students, it was footwear, the cars their parents drove and holiday destinations.
Theodore Roosevelt called comparison “the thief of joy.” I wouldn’t argue with the sentiment of his words, but comparison is harder to avoid than you might think. It’s a fundamental human impulse. As with many innate behaviours, it served an important purpose for our ancient ancestors.
It was vital for primitive people to work together if they were going to survive. If one hunter was particularly good at tracking, then it made sense for him to lead the rest of the hunting party. He could then pass the baton to those who were better with their spears.
There are times in modern society when it still serves us to know who’s got the best skills for a specific job. It’s also helpful when the time comes to choose a career path. Being creative and good with words is important if you want to be an author. You need a benchmark to come to those conclusions.
Comparison can be a problem when it’s not understood and managed. Used in the right way it can motivate you, but it can just as easily lead to feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt, remorse, and destructive behaviours like lying or eating disorders.
When you know comparison is challenging your happiness, you may decide to pretend you don’t care what car the neighbours drive or how many times your sister goes to Mexico, but that isn’t helpful either. Emotions always surface at some point in some way, often when you least expect or desire them.
So, if comparison is virtually impossible to avoid, how do you keep it from stealing your joy?
Opting out of social media is one way that can be helpful, but like the students I used to teach, there’s always someone and something you can compare yourself to.
People you identify closely with, like family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, are the ones you’re most likely to use as a measuring stick. The areas you’re likely to notice are the things you value like wealth, physical appearance and relationships.
From there it’s a simple step to believing the grass is greener somewhere other than where you’re standing.
Rather than attempting to purge yourself of this programming, I recommend you change your source of comparison. Take a look in the mirror. That’s the person you should be thinking about. How do you measure up to the you of last week, last year or even a decade or two ago?
If you can look in the mirror and know that you’re doing better than all the versions of yourself that came before, congratulations. If you can’t reach that conclusion, maybe it’s time to make some changes.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.