Tuesday, March 17, 2015

the problem of comparison

This particular post has been percolating in my mind for a while now because this is a topic that is too near and not very dear to my heart. Comparison is something that seems to be more or less hard-wired into the the human psyche; we compare options when we shop, when we consider what career to pursue, what partner to settle down with, and so on. In many contexts comparison is beneficial and helps us narrow down our options in life. However, I think some of us are prone to a more detrimental form of comparison: comparing ourselves to others.

Before I go too much further, I should clarify that I don't think that comparison is inherently terrible. I always compare myself to other people and have done so for many, many years. Taking note of what others are doing often inspires me to keep working on my own projects and we all need that slight kick in the butt once in a while. That being said, I do believe that there comes a point where comparison tears you down more than it inspires you or builds you up. As someone who does tend towards more negative thoughts, I find that comparison quickly leads to discouragement or sorrow, both of which can quickly spiral into days or weeks of gloom. My loved ones began to notice how down I would become and as we tried to talk through the depression, we came to realize that a lot of it stems from my tendency to compare my life and situation to others around me. As soon as that lightbulb went off in my mind, I made a concerted effort to stop comparing myself to other people and, to be honest, it proved to be much more difficult to stop than I thought it would! Old habits do die hard.

However, over the better part of six months (yes, you read that right - six months! This habit definitely didn't die easily) I have managed to almost completely stop comparing myself to others (in an unhealthy way) and - surprise, surprise - I have been incredibly content and happy ever since. A lot of what helped shift my thinking pattern were physical things: making sure to exercise, making sure I was eating well (sneaking in some chocolate for the dopamine, of course!), and working on personal creative projects to help me feel even more productive. However, the bulk of my paradigm shift happened when I began deconstructing my comparisons with other people. What were the "happiness" signifiers that I was latching onto and were they truly worthy of note? After I took a critical look at what I was doing, I started to notice some liberating things:

Everyone's concept of "happiness" is different. Things that seem unquestionably wonderful to you may actually be more contingent than you would initially think. In other words, that particular happiness might come with other affects attached to it. Maybe it is actually a mixed blessing for the other person, or maybe the things that make you truly happy in life don't actually lead to happiness for the other person. This realization came about after I started noticing how many people I know were also accepted into PhD programs and accepted an offer from a "dream institution", but still remained unhappy. It surprised me each time because in my mind, this situation is worthy of unquestionable joy or, at the very least, mild contentment. I came to realize that happiness is not objective across the board (or even amongst people who are similar or very close) and even when they achieve things that you consider to be a one-way ticket to Cloud 9, they may not truly be happy. In the end, I decided that I would rather have my life and learn to be content with what I have and work harder towards things I hope to achieve, rather than pining after someone else's life when in reality they themselves are not happy or content.

My second point ties into the first in that I believe that in this day and age, social media can often encourage us to compare ourselves to an edited version of others. As someone who has considerable background in social media work professionally, I am absolutely fascinated with the boom of social networks and think that (like everything else) they can be used for massive good, while also having some negative effects. I mentioned in my previous post that I use Twitter as a way to stay connected to what's going on in my field and I would feel so much more isolated if Twitter did not exist! At the same time, we have to be willing to admit that photos, tweets, and statuses are all edited elements of our lives. I myself do not post an unedited image on Instagram - even when it's a picture of my bischon-poo, who could not care less about how many likes his picture receives. There is nothing wrong with creating an aesthetically pleasing image, but whenever we see pictures of perfect skin, perfect locations, and perfect lives, it is important to understand that it is just an image frozen in a single moment with little to no context. We all know (deep down inside) that media images are edited and we also know that perfection does not really exist. The universe is itself imperfect and yet when you consider the fantastic events that occur throughout the universe we are all left with wonder - so imperfection is actually awe-inspiring within this context.

I decided to tone down my social media use because I started to notice how my tendency towards comparison was sort of being fed by statuses on Facebook or images on Instagram. Although I have cut back on Facebook, I do still look at Instagram quite a bit (mostly because I follow too many cute dogs to quit) but I always remind myself how deceiving an image can be. We can appreciate an image for its artistry, but maybe not as an ideal to work towards. For another take on this issue (or for those of you who are tired of staring at a brick wall of text), I enjoyed Kassie's video on the topic from a few months ago.

In the end, the point is to refocus your energy onto your own situation and figure out how to be happy or content with your own life. This whole post obviously comes with the caveat that some times life throws you extreme curveballs (I have a big beef with the idea that simple mental positivity fixes all situations) and that at times it is almost impossible to not compare yourself with others or wish for their lives. Yet I have found that constant comparison does me no good and shifting my mindset a bit has definitely helped me maintain a steady and content past few months.

Like I said at the beginning of the post, this is something that I struggle with even as I write this, so this is always a learning process. Do you compare yourself to others? How do you maintain a healthy balance between healthy comparisons (for inspiration) and the more damaging kind?

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