The Comparison Trap

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about comparison and the overwhelming emotions that often accompany the comparison trap. I’ve reflected on how I compare my life with the lives of others, as well as how I compare what I think my life should look like to what my life actually looks like. As this season of social distancing has continued, I’ve frequently caught myself fighting the comparison trap battle. I’m aware that when I feel socially isolated, it’s easier for me to get pulled into various social media platforms where I’ve convinced myself I’ll have at least a semblance of social connection. However, while scrolling through various updates, I often fall into the comparison habit as I see images conveying snippets of how others are successfully dealing with life, or I come across perfected images and suggestions on how to best handle the current circumstances. And then the comparison spiral starts and I allow these fragmented glimpses, often perfected or filtered images from a small part of someone’s experience, to inform my notion of how everyone else must be living in perpetual perfection compared to my continually messy, imperfect, filled-with-unexpecteds, life.

There are several sides to the comparison trap. One of the potential dangers of comparison is getting caught up in secretly believing I’m ahead of the game. Although I have caught myself falling into this side of the trap, believing that I’m ahead of the curve after comparing myself to others, these moments are actually extremely rare for me. This notion occurs exclusively on exceptionally good days, after sufficient sleep, a deep sense of peace and confidence, and a beautiful balance of accomplishments and down time throughout the day. During these extraordinary days, I believe my life far exceeds perfection and everyone should envy me. But, who am I kidding, I think this has happened once, maybe twice.

In reality, I find myself on the other side much more frequently, with the days where I come close to last place in the comparison game: my kids whined or cried for a majority of the day (despite my extensive attempts to keep them happy), the meals I made were subpar (no Pinterest-worthy food here), and every time I passed a mirror, I was surprised at the crazy-haired, sad-eyed image who stared back (when are mirrors going to come with a filter?). It’s these days, when I’m already struggling with self confidence, that my ego decides to bring me down even lower and I fall into the other dark side of comparison, comparing my life with my perception of the perfection present in everyone else’s lives. As if that isn’t enough, I then start to compare my current situation with the unrealistic version I’m convinced my life should constantly look like. And I always fall short.

The real danger in this is that during the really tough days I assume everyone has it all together except me. Or I conclude I must’ve made some major mistakes along the way to have missed my perfected daydream of perpetual happily ever after. I reason that everyone has already figured out life and they are all living it fully and perfectly while I limp along taking every detour and falling victim to every wrong turn along the way. Comparison distorts reality.

I used to believe that comparing myself to others was only negative if I told myself I was ahead. But, what I have also realized is that coming up short and focusing on how I’m behind everyone is also a negative behavior. Obviously, this mental ordering of who’s ahead and who’s behind is not beneficial to anyone. Because we’re all different. We all have different experiences, perspectives, thoughts, strengths, areas for growth. Rather than get stuck in comparison mode, it would be way more helpful to simply enjoy the diversity present in each of us, learn from one another, and share life together.

Easier said than done.

Because, it seems we all have a tendency to compare essentially every aspect of our lives with those around us (or, at the least, against our daydreamed lives). Is the house beautifully decorated? Is every homemade meal delicious and healthy? Is every day a good hair day? Are the vacations exciting and adventurous? Have the kids achieved all the developmental milestones at the appropriate times? Has the career advanced up the ladder? Has an assured and perpetual sense of purpose in life been maintained?

To a degree, it seems almost natural to compare. There are certain elements in our current culture that make comparison especially difficult to overcome. But despite being almost ingrained in our culture, comparison, most of the time, isn’t productive. We’re all going to have different experiences in life, that’s part of what makes life so beautiful: there are threads that tie us all together in our common humanity and the differences that make up our lives, experiences, thoughts, feelings, choices – it’s partly that diversity which makes life so beautiful and interesting. In the end, comparison is an ugly interruption to the fact that we are all going to be just a little different from each other. We all have strengths and, whether we like to admit it, weaknesses. What matters is how we use our unique gifts, perspectives, and experiences while we continue to stretch in our growth areas. It does not matter how well we compare and measure up to others or even against our own daydreams.

So, after realizing that comparison in all its forms is more harmful than not, I’ve been working to give myself grace to grow into a different habit. One that doesn’t compare myself with those who seem to have achieved perfection or with some idealized daydream of what my life should always look like. This doesn’t mean I don’t think about others, I do; but rather than focus on comparing myself to contrived notions of individuals and their circumstances, based on fragmented insights into their lives, I’m working to allow myself grace to appreciate, love, and pray for people. To love them where they are without judging myself for where I am.

Wendi, her husband, and their two kids are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents, having recently relocated to northern Minnesota. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.

*photo credit: personal photo*

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