Work and The World

The Comparison Trap

Woe is she who gets stuck in the Comparison Trap


For some time now, I have marinated in a world of unhelpful comparison. Recently it became oh so worse.  Clearly, this is a personal problem, but I believe that it has real world career implications.  I would like to think it’s perfectly normal that on occasion we pause and take stock of our achievements.  I would even venture as far as saying that a balanced reflection on where we are at periodically is a healthy activity. Additionally, getting stuck in a comparison trap is dangerous.

So here I was, marinating in the world of the comparison trap. Trying to ascertain if I was senior enough, successful enough, accomplished enough, tied enough to my values when I went on a professional development course.  At this course I met what might be some of the most brilliant folks I have had the privilege to meet in a career sense.  These folks were doing brilliant things in science, health, academia, IT and in our Community.  They were accomplished, and they weren’t arrogant about it.  In fact, most tried to down play their role titles and achievements.  Many had brains the size of planets.  Frankly, it intimidated the shiz out of me.


Cue the Comparison Trap spiral


Now, not only was I comparing myself in my own circles, I begun to compare myself with others whose achievements are truly world changing.  It probably won’t surprise you that in getting stuck in the Comparison Trap, I came up significantly short.

Thus, begun a massive crisis of confidence.  Right up until I got on this terrible mouse wheel I was feeling pretty satisfied with my career life.  I felt that I was making a difference, finding success and helping people.  Tick, tick and tick for my goals.  And then just like that, I began looking at others and thinking any variation of the following:


  • “she is more passionate than I am”
  • “she is less emotional than I am”
  • “is he smarter than I am”
  • “he earns more than me”
  • “she is treated with more respect”
  • “he went to a sandstone university for his post-grad, I didn’t”
  • “maybe I should be more advanced by now”


And on, and on.  Absolutely stuck in the Comparison Trap.


Brilliant Minds


It was Teddy Roosevelt who brilliantly said that “comparison is the thief of joy”, and she was unequivocally correct.  The cost of my comparison trap was the introduction of self-doubt, a lack of clarity and a loss of focus on what I was trying to achieve.  Ultimately, I felt bad about myself and the things that I had achieved.  The crazy thing is, that the self-doubt was created by me in the first place.

It can be heartbreaking and cruel to marinate in the comparison trap.  Undoubtedly you will suffer, but I would also suggest that those around you may be innocent victims of your self-doubt crisis simply by being close enough to you while you are agonising in a world you created.  The brilliant mind of Eleanor Roosevelt also said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.


Is it possible to get out of the Comparison Trap


Of course, the pure of heart would suggest that we just simply stop and focus on what we are grateful for.  And in my case, I am bloody grateful for who I know and love, what I have experienced and what I have.  However, stopping comparison is more easily said than done.  Today we see somewhere between 4000 and 5000 advertisements per day, all of whom tell us that our lives would be better if we just had what they are spruiking (read here for more) .  Our social media is chock full of the best versions of our lives, when was the last time you posted that you didn’t do the dishes and came out in the morning to find them covered in ants, or that you were terribly disappointed with your child, as opposed to proud?

The point is that we are bombarded with comparison, and occasionally its likely to get the better of us.  Given the extreme consequences of comparison can be as severe as depression and other mental health illnesses (read here or here for more), it is worth working out how to quit the habit.


Getting out of the Comparison Trap


Let me acknowledge that there is a place for comparison, and it can be healthy.  For example, it might be a good thing to know that you are doing better than the average in recovery from an illness.  This might spur you on to keep doing what you have been doing to get well.  Another example, is that when you meet someone who has achieved amazing things that you are mobilised to do ‘that thing’ that you had always talked about.  Or better still, see in what capacity you can join the amazing person to do amazing things.  This might be something I could do with my course of brilliant people.


More practically, while we all need to run our own race, sometimes lifting our heads up to see that we are still heading in the right direction is important.  Sometimes we need to compare ourselves to others to do so.  There will be times when your test scores are not as good as others, that is a given.  However, what you do with that knowledge is the issue.  Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.


To get out of the Comparison Trap (or at least minimise it to sustainable levels), you need to do two things in my experience.


  1. Be aware of the comparison self-talk. Every time you start to compare and feel bad, notice it.  Notice what the primary triggers are and how it makes you feel.
  2. Put in a circuit breaker. Once you are noticing, then it is easier to do this.  My go to is to do (or say) something nice for someone else.  Another circuit breaker might be to go to your phone and pull up a picture of your cat.  Whatever makes you grateful and turns the conversation off in your head.


One Final Thing about the Comparison Trap


I have spoken here about the fact that I find meditation hard.  But I am still at it.  You can meditate to be grateful and you can put a gratitude practice in your daily routines (try here and here).  I have to tell you, it’s hard to be stuck in the Comparison Trap at the same time as being consciously grateful.  Why don’t you give it a try?  What are you grateful for?

Photo by Dietmar Becker on Unsplash

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