The On Being Project

What Is Really Lost When You Compare Yourself To Others

It’s been some months since the time of New Year, new me! The energy that surrounds a New Year’s resolution is the conviction that, with fresh resolve, our lingering problems may just disappear. While some may be able to use this boost of feeling to propel long-term actions, most of us give up a week or two into the year. Why? The comparing mind gets in the way.

The comparing mind in some ways can be seen as our friend. Our ability to find patterns, to understand why some things are like others, and others are not alike at all, is an important quality of our intelligence. When we use that same gift to essentially compare ourselves to others, however, it often leads to discouragement and defeat. The comparing mind becomes our doubter; it convinces us we’ll never be as good as others, so why go through the agony of trying to change?

The comparing mind often kicks in to convince you of your unworthiness because anything short of perfection is failure by comparison. This voice discourages you from sustaining a change. Instead of acknowledging that it will be hard, that you are likely to have to renew your resolve, and cautioning you to be clear-eyed about that, the comparing mind perpetuates a low opinion of you and your chances, convincing you that the change you seek is impossible.

My friend Willow, whose New Year’s resolve was to swim five times a week, almost tripped herself up with comparing mind. When she got to the pool on the fifth morning of her new discipline, she found that the only lane open was next to a boisterous group of young athletes training for the swimming part of a charity triathlon. As she plodded over to the open lane, the sight of them made her cranky. There they were, sleek as eels as they slipped in and out of the water laughing, grinning when they turned to take another lap. She plunked her middle-aged body into the water feeling every ounce of her excess forty pounds.

Willow pushed off from the side of the pool, enjoying the feeling of the cold water against her warm skin, but then the comparisons returned. The young woman in the lane next to her quickly left Willow in her wake, and another followed close behind her. Willow’s competitive streak rose up (after all she had been a competitive swimmer in high school) and she sped up but never got even close to the young women.

“I should be better,” she thought.

Maybe if she focused more on form instead of comparing herself to people twenty or thirty years younger than she, she might be able to break apart this grumpy mind. She concentrated on cutting the water at an angle with the side of her hand and then twisting the palm flat so she could grab the maximum amount of water to push through. It worked. She was focused on the feeling of her body moving through the water, faster than the last lap, but then the comparing mind again. Sure she was a little faster but no match for the people next to her.

“I should be faster,” she thought. “I’m never going to be as fast as them again. I don’t know why I’m trying.”

At this point, she was almost done with her fourth lap and feeling like she might just get out of the pool. This wasn’t fun. They were so happy, so loose and free in their bodies, as they joked with each other, calling out pet names, and horsing around in the water after they finished a lap

“I should be happier,” she thought.

As she neared the end of the pool, she was really angry with the people in the next lane, who were finished and were leaping out, grabbing their gear and each other even though the air was chilly.

“I should be younger,” she thought.

And then she got to the end of the pool and started laughing. She should be younger! Well, that was something to put on her New Year’s resolution list next year. It was ridiculous, and with that in mind she could see that the other admonitions the comparing mind was shoving into her consciousness were just as absurd. They were preventing her from feeling, and enjoying, her life as it was in that moment.

At the end of her first set of laps, she rested at the edge of the pool with her arms draped over the sides, glowing with health, her skin pumped full of blood and feeling radiant. When that joy started to recede, she pushed off from the side of the pool for the next set of laps. Her form was not so precise, but she did not care. She enjoyed the slower pace, the lessening of urgency, and absence of something to prove. Without comparing herself to others, she could feel pure joy in her effort and movement. Her mind was clear and relaxed in her swimming meditation.

I thought of meditation when Willow described her experience. When she slowed down and focused only on the movement and the effects it had on her body, she was able to let go of the doubts, fears, and comparisons in order to experience what the body presented to her at that moment. The experience of being buoyed along in the water, of her muscles moving through it, was a pure sensation of being alive, once she got her comparing mind out of the way.

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