Theodore Roosevelt has a great quote that sums things up: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I’m least satisfied with my life when I’m too busy looking around and comparing what I see or perceive about others (which is probably not accurate 93.5% of the time anyway) with what I have, do and am. Comparison robs us not only of joy, but of contentment.
Conversations overheard in my house. On the regular.
“Crazy yard man across the street is at it again. His grass is so short already, I don’t think his mower is actually cutting anything.”
“They say a tidy house is the sign of a life misspent, so I clearly have my priorities way straighter than my neighbor. How is it possible her house looks amazing even when I drop in unannounced? But I don’t really care since my priorities are so darn straight.”
“I took a mental health day today to grade and catch up on life and sanity. I stopped in at Target to return that shirt that’s been sitting in my passenger seat for 29 days and saw SO MANY people there. Don’t you people have jobs? How are you at Target browsing casually around at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday?!”
And then there’s my inner monologue when I hear from another school mom about their upcoming vacation (didn’t you JUST take your kids on a Disney cruise?!) or when I talk to friends who stayed in the corporate world when I made the move to education (I don’t even want to THINK about what your paycheck looks like now compared to mine – don’t you know I’m changing lives!).
This mental (and actual) commentary always leaves me feeling much more satisfied with my own family, job and circumstances – said NO ONE EVER. I know this, and yet I insist on torturing myself.
I really do consider myself a “glass half full” kind of a gal. But I think maybe it’s time to toss that half-full glass and just get a different, smaller glass. Then it will be full, and I won’t be sitting there trying not to care about the empty part. So let’s take a look at the top things that can make that glass seem REALLY empty, and then go shopping for a more realistically-sized glass with some tangible ways to cure adult-onset “gimmes.”
Culprit #1: Social Media
Some of my friends have said adios to social media either permanently or for a time because they saw it was causing them to compare themselves and their lives to others in a way that wasn’t healthy. Way back in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term “Facebook depression” to describe the impact social media CAN have if you’re not careful. They have since clarified that social media can also be a source of information and support, but Facebook and Instagram still give us new platforms for a dangerous comparison game that has been going on since the dawn of humanity.
Psychologists in the 1950s popularized the social-comparison theory to describe people’s innate tendency to track their progress and assess self-worth by comparing themselves to other people. Doing this all the time, over time, and especially with people you feel are out-doing you in different ways, leads to depression and lower self-esteem.
And I’ve been there. I’ve seen a friend’s amazing family vacation pics on Facebook and then had a mental conversation with myself about why my family’s road trip memories seem less picture-perfect and more “Get your fast food wrappers off the van floor!” and “If you ask me one more time when you can watch a movie, I swear I will chuck this portable DVD player out the window.” And I don’t know how many times I need to talk to said friend and hear that her vacation was “a disaster” with a blow-out fight with the in-laws to realize that Facebook life does not equal reality MUCH of the time.
This was the state of Mary's van after about 1,000 miles of driving this summer. Please don't report my misconduct of borrowed materials to the library.
Any guesses how long it took for Kristie to get ONE good family photo?
Culprit #2: A Focus on What Others Think
I have hideous white tile throughout my entryway and kitchen with grungy brown, used-to-be-white grout. Most of the houses in my neighborhood have a similar floorplan, which means when I visit neighbors I literally fan-girl over their updated tile or wood floors. My ‘80s tile floor shows every piece of dirt, dog hair and dried mac n cheese and mandarin orange. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been crawling around on the floor with a paper towel and a bottle of spray cleaner spot cleaning because a friend is stopping by and I’m horrified by the state of my floor.
Tell me this isn't the worst flooring. It's like you entered a time machine to the '80s. And don't even get me started on the honey-colored cabinets. Ugh!
But Kristie’s grandma can one-up me. Her grandma bleached the sidewalks in front of her house. Let me repeat that, because it might make you feel better about the things you do to save face in front of others. SHE BLEACHED THE SIDEWALKS. I imagine her like Raymond’s mom from the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond with the plastic cover on the couch that crunched uncomfortably when people sat on it, but darn it, the couch stayed clean.
Kristie’s grandma and I might be slightly neurotic, but stop for a minute and think about things that you DON’T DO because, in a small or a major way, you worry about what people might think. Let me give you some ideas to spur the brainstorm:
- Not posting many pictures of yourself (if you go back and look, are there many fewer pictures of you in your house and on your social media than every other family member?)
- Not having people over as often as you’d like because 1) You’re not a great cook 2) You’d have to clean the house 3) You feel like you’re not a great host
- Not joining an adult rec team or coaching a team for your kids
What did you add to this list?
What are we missing out on because we feel like things need to be a certain way to make an impression on others?
We often want to control our kids, our students, our house and our skills in any given area because it’s so easy to feel like it’s all a reflection of some image we’re trying to portray. An image we would prefer to be from our best side, on a day we’ve actually showered - oh, and with an Instagram filter of course.
And the grand irony is that almost every time, real people prefer to interact with, work with and be friends with other REAL PEOPLE. I love it when I visit a friend and see dirty dishes in the sink. Or when a coworker tells me about a royal screw-up in the classroom. I even have to admit the value of walking through those mortifying times when my kids do something that makes it look like they are parented solely by Netflix. That’s when connections happen, and lessons are learned, and relationships deepen beyond the surface.
Even in mainstream media, you can see the hunger for things that are authentic as brands make growing profits by being more real. Dove’s been riding the wave for years with its Real Beauty ads, and this fall Macy’s will launch a “Remarkable You” advertising campaign focused on six real women from different jobs from teacher to civil engineer to coach.
The quest to be flawless is exhausting, and the prize is pretty empty.
Culprit #3: Healthy Competition Gone Awry
Competition--with yourself and with others--can be good. It motivates me to make time in my schedule to run and to continually look for tools and ideas to improve my teaching. It makes games from soccer to Ticket to Ride fun.
But left unchecked, it can do some serious damage. When we compete to win, it puts us on one side and other people on the opposing side. It turns friends, family and even strangers into the enemies.
Take this Buzzfeed quiz to see What % Competitive Are You? I got a 62%. Bet you can’t beat me.
So what can I do?
If these are the top things that create unhealthy comparison in our lives, we need to make some changes to build and protect a healthier mindset.
Put Your Perspective In Check
Let’s just start here. If you live in America or another first world country, you have a lot. I’m not trying to minimize difficult circumstances - whether they be financial, relational, health-based or anything else. Rough times are rough times. But a lot of the damage comparison does in our lives is around the small stuff. And sometimes we just need a reality check.
Lyndsey Dennis, author of the blog Vapor & Mist and the new book Buried Dreams, doesn’t know me, but she and her story impacted my life. Her life has involved two daughters whose lives were much too short, adoption and the birth of healthy baby Briella this summer. She walked through difficult circumstances - things I can’t and don’t want to imagine. But her ability to show hope and faith in the face of the deepest sorrow inspired me and gave me much needed perspective.
A similar shift happened when Kristie and I served summer lunches with our co-worker’s nonprofit The LunchBox Ohio this summer. Our kids saw a part of our city they hadn’t seen before. They heard stories about kids whose parents send them out the front door in the morning with nothing to eat and tell them not to come home until dark. Kristie’s kids went home talking about gathering donated sports equipment to donate to the kids they had met, and I didn’t hear the usual complaints about what we were having for dinner for probably at least a week.
Both Kristie’s family and mine did the “Giving Hope to Sick Kids” SALT effect box with our own families, and man, did it bring some things in focus. It was difficult and a little scary to talk to our kids - ages 5 to 12 - about the many kids who battle cancer and other serious illnesses. But it’s real, and it made them thankful for their health. It also empowered them to see there are tangible ways they can use what they have to help others and to do that. The box includes a kit from Beads of Courage that connects you to a real child in a way that truly does offer joy and hope.
Keep Your Eyes on YOUR Road
There is, and will always be, someone smarter, better looking, richer, in better circumstances and [fill in the blank] than you. But there’s always someone in line behind you as well. What actually matters is that there is no other person exactly LIKE you, with the certain combination of gifts you bring the table. Get to know your strengths because that’s where you will excel. We really like the book and online assessment StrengthsFinder. It’s $16 and the Amazon description sums it up:
“Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day? Chances are, you don’t. All too often, our natural talents go untapped. From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to fixing our shortcomings than to developing our strengths.”
Stop shooting for perfect, and instead find your strengths and look for ways to live and serve in your sweet spot. Be real and be you. We’ll leave you with a few ideas on how to do that.
It makes us laugh that this post - of us prepping food in hair nets in a 90-degree kitchen - got more comments from our friends on social media than almost any other post we have.
- Take a break from social media to cut out the urge to compare
- Post pictures of your real self in your real life with your real family, even when it feels a little to embarassingly real
- Invite friends for dinner and ordering pizza instead of cooking. Or bringing home pulled pork from some local joint and asking the guests to bring a side
- Look at the people with whom you spend the most time (motivational speaker Jim Rohn says you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with)
- Keep a “gratitude list” on your phone, in your journal or planner, or on your fridge as a visual reminder