After all these years, I still find it interesting how lessons from my athlete days can pop up in other areas of life. In my competition era, for example, one of the things that helped me continually better my performance was a well-honed, disciplined inner focus. In the deep reaches of a marathon, I better be focused on myself. That doesn’t mean I never had awareness of where other people were in relation to me – although those moments happened, too. It means I couldn’t afford to spend my energy outside of myself in those grueling hours. In a game of mind over matter, you learn not to waste critical mental resources.
Focusing on others and getting diverted by comparison would’ve been one of those perilous mistakes. Your race isn’t about other people and where they are. It’s about your training, your focus, your pacing, your state of mind. Some folks can come with a plan that they’ve developed over months but get thrown off course by paying too much attention to other people’s approach. Suddenly, they’ve expended more energy than they’re used to in the beginning sections of a race, and now they’ve lost touch with their rhythm. They struggle to recalibrate their pacing. It’s disorienting and you can guess how unsuccessful. Funny how the same principle can hold in many regards when it comes to success in life – and health. Undoubtedly, there’s a time (and a place) for comparison. I’ve used it to my advantage – in many endeavors. The key, I find, is to be mindful of when you turn to comparison and what you’re looking to get from it.
There’s an important distinction to be made here, first off. Exercising or training (insert any health/life endeavor) with other people, offering mutual encouragement – that’s community. There’s legitimately something to the group dynamic in exercise. The presence and energy of other people can be a welcome distraction. They can help make light of arduous fitness tasks. They can offer support. They can share the physical and emotional journey, so to speak. Having a witness to our struggles and accomplishments is powerful.
Setting their performance or ability against your own, on the other hand – that’s comparison. The first doesn’t beget the second, but it can sometimes accompany it. The same holds for many situations, whether it’s losing weight, getting in shape, rebuilding your health, cultivating your career, growing your financial situation, pursuing creative projects, or simply designing a life trajectory. How we handle our inclinations toward community and comparison is up to us.
The Upside of Comparison
According to social comparison theory (in a nutshell), we compare ourselves to others for information gathering – as a means of expanding and/or honing our frame of reference for self-assessment. It presumably gives a reality check when objective measures aren’t present or aren’t deemed as relevant. In some cases, we also compare ourselves because we want to boost our motivation to achieve more by finding motivation in the examples “upward” comparison (e.g. someone fitter, more successful, etc.) provides. In other circumstances, we choose to indulge in so called “downward” comparison to presumably boost our self-esteem by focusing on people in worse situations than those in which we perceive ourselves to be (e.g. more overweight, less fit, less successful, etc.).
On the positive end of things, comparison can offer an “information gathering” framework. We may not realize what’s even possible without the model of other people. The example of other people can expand our sense of what we can imagine for ourselves. Maybe we never before understood the variety of approaches to getting fit or preparing all of our own meals. Maybe we never believed it was possible to work from home or balance the need for personal time with family commitment. Likewise, seeing their struggles and success can help us anticipate the stumbling blocks and appropriate solutions for our own endeavors.
Nonetheless, I’d say these examples are the more innocuous forms that fall more under the “observation” umbrella than the true comparison.
In terms of true “assessment”-focused comparison as we often think of it, the impact on our behavior can be varied but clear. As I’ve noted before, studies support the notion that we tend to use the people in our inner circles as “norms” against which we gauge our eating and even weight. Within that premise, we can feel genuinely motivated to perform better (or to be lulled into acquiescence). Research suggests, for example, that people will up their game solely based on their perception of the person exercising next to or with them. (PDF) One of our inclinations is to push ourselves – or in other cases, slouch – to match those around us. Experts believe comparing some element of ourselves can actually support self-esteem as well as encourage self-enhancement.
The Downside of Comparison
Yet, not every act of comparison emboldens us. Although research in the area of social comparison shows that we tend to compare ourselves to others who are somewhat similar rather than vastly different in ability/characteristics/other aspect up for evaluation. (PDF) Nonetheless, I believe we often look for the comparison we’re primed to seek out – whether by our own emotional insecurities or the novelty of modern media. How many of us have at some point watched the fittest people in the gym and wanted to slink away to the other side of the room? How many of us seen media photos of the super-lean and felt like giving up?
On the other hand, maybe we’ve taken a few steps to clean up our diet and not felt motivated to go much further because our choices seem so much better than the people in our families and workplaces. It’s all too easy to feel good about a few steps when almost everyone we know is still back at the starting line.
I think we need to be entirely honest – which also means mindful – about the motivation behind our comparisons. What are really looking at when we’re glancing around the gym during our rest periods? What’s really going through our heads when we head for the back row (or the front row) at a fitness class? What are we looking to see in other people? Are we information gathering – on techniques or ideas? Or are we looking for ammunition to use against ourselves to affirm rooted thinking – or for justifications to boost our egos?
There’s nothing wrong with asking legitimate questions that lead us toward productive self-assessment. How is that person pacing his/her workout? How does he/she enjoy training? How does that person exude self-confidence? The inevitable next question to these ponderings is, “Why not me?”
Healthy comparison should bring us back to empowerment. Marcus Aurelius presumably said, “How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself….” I’d add how much additional peace and energy to that proposal.
For every five minutes we spend comparing our abilities to another person’s, we’d do well to make sure we’re devoting an hour to assessing our own progress and doing something (anything healthy) to celebrate it.
You are your ultimate frame of reference – your own evolution. Track whatever you need to be able to measure your self-comparison. Keep you mind on your own race. Hone your own performance by understanding and following what shows you your progress.
Be honest with yourself about what offers you positive inputs for consideration (e.g. ideas) and what pushes you too far for the time being. It’s my experience that people’s confidence grows as their fitness grows and their self-investment increases. You don’t have to have it all down right out of the starting gate. Stay away from media that sends you down a negative comparison spiral. Be careful with settings that trigger the insecurity, but don’t use that as an excuse to avoid resources that would be legitimately helpful.
In the context of this honesty, you must commit to seeing yourself in a more generous light. If you’re your own worst critic, if you indulge in self-bashing, excuses or victimhood, then it’s time you owned that. Trust me, no matter what other people around you are doing, it won’t matter more than your attitude does.
Finally, lean on like-minded community, and make sure you aren’t going it alone. Again, community supports rather than compares. Isolation breeds comparison. When you feel yourself integrated with others, you feel more secure. When you’re known and supported, it’s not about comparing aspects with envy or arrogance. It’s about knowing and being known as a full, aspiring, fallible human being – the way we all endeavor our journeys, for whatever health, fitness or personal aspiration. Ground yourself in that commonality, and look to better yourself – on your own terms.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. How has comparison served or sabotaged you in the past? I’m curious to hear your feedback. Have a great end to your week.
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