What is a Good Life? #27
Comparison to others
Good day to you all,
First off, thanks to so many of you who sent your well wishes while I was feeling under the weather last week - all very much appreciated.
This newsletter in its current form will be running until the end of this year, so there will be just two more issues between now and then (December 21 & 28). I still intend to send out a weekly newsletter but under a different format and theme which I’ll outline in a couple of weeks.
The key theme this week is Comparison to others. The interviewee speaks about the extra complexity and difficulty it creates, while I reflect on what helps me deal with these thought loops.
1. This week’s interview
Each week I share direct excerpts from an individual interview
This week’s interview is with James*. James is now a Consultant at a global consultancy firm. At the time of the interview he was in between jobs and he spoke about the challenges of comparing himself to others.
*Not the participant’s real name
What is a good life for you?
I think a good life centres around the idea of self-actualisation, but my idea of self-actualisation varies all the time. For me, happiness is the big concept that leads towards self-actualisation, it's happiness or fulfilment. If I break things down into fundamentals, it's happiness and fulfilment in work and love. They're probably our most primal aims and objectives.
In your career, your day to day, are you satisfied with what you're doing? Are you challenged? Are you achieving? Are you being remunerated if that is what drives you materially? Or if you're more socially oriented, are you fulfilled in that regard?
And then love in terms of your relationship with your immediate partner, your familial relationship, the family you grew up with. How are the relationships with family? Have they always been strong? Or have there been issues there that have long lasting effects that affect your development and your emotional makeup, and that has a whole web of complexity?
I’d struggle to confidently declare that I'm really happy because I tend to be an overly analytical person, someone who's quite self-deprecating, and self-effacing, almost to the detriment of my own success, self-actualisation, and confidence levels.
The more I think about all these different things, the more I start to engage in negative habits that challenge my own idea of happiness. For example, there's a real tendency to focus on the negative and to be my own worst critic.
What contributes most to further complexity in your life?
For me, complexity is closely connected with comparing myself to others (in terms of what others are earning, assets, family) - thinking I am not as far along in my progression, thinking I'm years behind others - rather than having one sort of benchmark or metric of happiness that I could be measuring myself against.
It brings so many different actors, variables, and societal pressures that might not have anything to do with your friends or your immediate social circle. Something like scrolling through Instagram and realising you intangibly feel quite inferior.
And not necessarily because you don't have an Adonis body, but just the whole process of being overwhelmed with a perceived perfection. You have this intangible inadequacy.
There are very tangible things like salary, family, assets, progression in life in general, whatever that may be. Then there's very intangible stuff that is the rampant, overwhelming nature that social media and tech has brought to us.
Very quickly, you can see this huge web of complexity. I think it's a thoroughly modern complexity as well. It's no coincidence that this need and awareness around wellness and mental health happened in parallel with the untrammelled takeover of tech, social media, and increased pressure in the workplace – “always switched on” - that sort of stuff.
Anxiety is now like an epidemic, and we need to find more tools and processes to navigate our way through.
What helps you to navigate comparison to others and difficult times?
One realisation that has been very helpful with comparison is just stepping back and saying, “look in reality, I'm only running this race against myself.” I noticed sometimes in the past it wasn’t even really about what I wanted, it was more feeling like I’m staying with the pace of the race and not falling behind.
So at least I have that perspective, but it's just in the here and now, you want to be doing as well as you can be. And I mean, doing as well as you can across so many different strands in life. Even as I say that sentence, I realise I’m putting myself under so much pressure to deliver in all these different areas, that I’m never going to feel fulfilled if I keep pressuring myself that way.
When you're in the midst of difficult times, they're obviously inherently challenging, but if you have a good idea of perspective, and with the advent of your own maturity and evolution it all helps.
If you’ve gone through difficult and sad periods, with your accrued experience, you should be able to say, “this is obviously shit. This is obviously a difficult time. But I do understand that this has given me some sort of resilience, and I need to realise that now.” I know things will improve and when things are better, I look back on it as something that made me a stronger, more enlightened person.
I have much less of a tendency to catastrophise now than I would have in my 20s and I have a bit more patience. Because if you control what you can control, you use your resources, by acknowledging that you've got good people around you, you appreciate the good things that you have.
Suddenly, you can really get a healthy perspective that you're actually quite fortunate. Whereas the time when I was in my mid 20s, I didn't really have that vision or perspective or wasn't really able to see that quite so readily.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” - Theodore Roosevelt
2. This week’s insight
Each week I share an overall insight from reviewing 100+ interviews collectively
Comparison to others was mentioned by approximately 13% of the participants in this project as an obstacle to experiencing a good life.
Numerous participants mentioned unfavourably comparing themselves to other people’s appearance, relationships, family status, possessions and wealth, to name but a few. Comparison to others was often described as a stick with which to beat ourselves.
Social media was frequently noted as amplifying this very human tendency and removing oneself from social media was suggested as a partial remedy to this difficulty. As participants grew older, they often reflected that the propensity to compare waned as the decades passed.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’m feeling so good about myself, my life and my family, and then in a split second it’s gone because I start comparing myself to other people.” - Brené Brown
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3. This week’s reflection
Each week I share a personal reflection on the weekly theme
When I decided to take a sabbatical and then to study to change careers in my mid-thirties, I decided to put off buying property until I had established myself in a new field.
Although I have no wish to go back on that decision, my mind will still sporadically punish me with comparisons to many friends and family who chose differently. Randomly judging myself over a decision with which I remain content does not seem the fairest or most rational mechanism.
There are a few things that help me to navigate unfavourable comparisons to others. Firstly, the more I get to know myself, and therefore know what I want in life, the less inclined I’ve been to frequently concern myself with other people’s status - I have too much to figure out with my own mission.
Secondly, expanding the scope of my comparison has been really helpful. For example, knowing that 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10 a day, provides a wider context to comparisons that I make, and also develops a lot more gratitude.
Finally, my own life experience has taught me that nobody has a perfect life: everyone is dealing with something. Over the last number of years, too many people have confided in me challenges that I never would have guessed they were facing. My assumptions about the “idyllic” lives of others have proven misplaced too many times.
Comparisons and judgements continue to occur, however, with these acknowledgements, I am able to expedite my exit from draining thought loops.
“The tip of the neighbour's iceberg often looks very nice.” - Roy Ngansop
4. This week’s questions for personal reflection
Each week I pose questions to support your own inquiry into what a good life is for you
Can you think of any comparisons to others that are holding you back from the life that you want to live?
Thinking back to a recent example, what do you notice about how you feel when these comparisons are triggered? What would it be helpful to remind yourself of in such moments?
I’m a coach, based in Berlin (via Dublin, Ireland). I formerly had a 15-year career in Capital Markets, and for better or worse, I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to make a discovery around human thought / behaviour. If you want to contact me directly, here’s my email and LinkedIn.