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Today we are going to talk about a thief in the night. It steals our joy right from under our noses–it’s comparison that robs us and mostly it’s built on faulty assumptions and half-truths.
Comparison Shopping: a Thief in the Night
Do you have more than me, or do I have more than you? We rarely think of that question in terms of our internal resources–our emotional stability, our self-esteem, or our innate talents. No, we look at the surface level and the packaging. Do you look better than I do? Do you have nicer clothes, a better home, more friends, and the option of travel to beautiful places?
Perhaps we comb through our social media feed at night. We tell ourselves it’s entertainment, but usually, it’s either zoning out or comparison shopping.
Can I do that latest dance like they do?
If I use that product will I have hair that looks like hers?
How many followers does he have and what do I have to do to get that many? Why don’t I already have them?
I call this comparison shopping–it’s like we are looking for, and trying on a better life. But in the process, we are neglecting our own life.
Where does comparison shopping get us? Is another person’s life better than ours, or are we simply unaware of their struggles? Have you noticed that we rarely create reels or stories that highlight our hard times? How do we measure success and accomplishments in ways that add to our lives instead of taking away from them? I’ve been questioning myself, because let’s face it, I’m watching those highlight reels before bed too. I’m comparing my podcast download numbers to others too. I’m looking at those cool cargo pants too. I could go on, but you get the picture. This is very much an “us” problem, but it’s one that I work to temp down and rein in by reminding myself of some core beliefs. I’ll get to those.
Social Comparison Theory: Upward & Downward
We all compare ourselves to others. There’s even a theory to explain it called Social Comparison Theory. We have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others and it can come with both benefits and problems. We can do an upward social comparison, where we compare ourselves to people we perceive to have greater skill or accomplishments in an area (like me comparing myself to more experienced podcasters). That may motivate me, and give me an aspirational vision, but if taken too far, it may cause me to feel bad about my progress. What I know for sure is that if I don’t reason the comparison through and understand my stage of development in relation to theirs, I’m gonna feel some kind of way about it—and usually it’s not a good feeling.
There is also downward social comparison when I compare what I have or can do with other people who don’t have as much skill or accomplishment in those areas as I do. This may make me feel better about myself. But usually, that feeling is brief, because it doesn’t make me feel that great to think that others aren’t as skilled. I can identify with their desire to grow and take steps forward. Anyway, these social comparisons we make are relative to other people.
Social Media Ups the Comparison Game
We now have a worldwide scale with which to compare ourselves to others through social media. Now, I consume social media as much as the next guy, but I’ve noticed a pattern. I feel most invigorated and positive about it on Friday and Saturday nights; that's when I find new music for my playlists. I can spend hours hunting down new music.
I go through my beloved Soundcloud app to find new music. Do you use Soundcloud? If you like hip-hop, electronica, new beats, remixes, and music collaborations, it’s a great platform to explore. On Friday or Saturday nights I look through the new releases and add songs to my core ongoing playlist. This music will be my companion on walks to work, during dance sessions in my house, and while doing chores. I also go on Instagram and look at reels of DJs, dancers, and other music-related content. I usually post these to my stories and for about an hour, I reminisce about the days when my weekends were defined by music and dancing. You can check out some of my musical finds by following me on Instagram or by listening to my Season One music video playlist on YouTube. Good music and positive vibes (hold the comparison).
The Fun Side of Social Media: New Music, DJs, Dance Moves & Memories
I grew up into adulthood in the 80s, and beginning around the age of 17, I started to go to dance clubs in New York. There were many—the Tunnel, Webster Hall, Area, Kamikaze, Limelight, the Palladium, and Emerald City, but my favorite was Studio 54. If you're under the age of 40, you may not have heard of this club, but just imagine an adults-only version of Disney World on steroids and you have a good idea of the amount of fun that could be had in this club.
Studio 54 had its heyday in the 70s, but even during its last years of existence when my boyfriend and I went dancing there most weekends, it was a fabulous club. Two things made it special—and I have carried the memory of these two things throughout my life. First, every type of person (every gender, race, age, sexual orientation) went and enjoyed the dancefloor at Studio 54.
We had a summer weekend pass, so once we got in, it felt like the most inclusive place I had ever been to, and honestly, nothing has matched it since. You see, the dancefloor was a melting pot of people who loved to party, to dance, to express themselves, and yes to get f**ked up and carried away. I felt completely accepted on the dancefloor—there was never a feeling of judgment or comparison. You just took everything in; you enjoyed the eye candy, you celebrated the freedom and you brushed up against each other with acceptance and community. Whoever you were, if you felt good on the dancefloor, you belonged. You were a member of the club, and honestly, we were a motley crew. I loved how free I felt on nights at Studio 54.
The other thing was that the club was a sensory playland. The lighting was fabulous—columns wrapped in color, a sound system that beat in unison with my heart, and smoke that billowed from below at just the right moments. And if we were lucky, very late into the night (or sometime near morning), there would appear a pendulum with a pulsating heart at the end of it. It swung above your head. It would swing over our heads and whoosh, whoosh, the cool air would travel above us. I have never seen anything so magical sense, but this lit heart on a pendulum capped off the night. It symbolized our collective love; our love of dance, of music, of freedom, and of each other. I’m sure there were comparisons being made, we appreciated fabulous fashion or fancy dance moves for sure, but it was not at the sake of looking down at others or inwards to belittle ourselves. We admired the beauty, we bathed in it. So Fridays with music bring back those fabulous memories, and when I’m consuming social media in this context, I’m not engaging in negative comparisons.
That got me thinking...
- Should I stop using social media when it’s not focused on these Friday-night music sessions?
- How can I reduce comparisons that are harmful to my mental well-being?
You see, comparison can affect our mental health. Social comparison can be a way to self-evaluate or monitor, but while some comparisons can have a positive effect on our motivation, other types of comparison can negatively impact the way we feel about ourselves.
A Surface Level Understanding
While it’s often based on a surface understanding of another person’s perceived “wealth” without understanding their personal, family, and emotional struggles, the price we pay for taking things at face value, may make us feel less than. We may be comparing ourselves to someone else without understanding that they may be struggling with that perceived wealth. Perhaps we don't know the story of how their connections or circumstances helped them receive those things.
If you are comparing yourself to images or videos on social media, you are seeing the high points in someone’s life, and this one-sided view often leaves out their struggles or inadequacies. How many times have you posted a story or reel about how awful you feel? Or how something negative happened to you. Rarely, if ever. Everyone is trying desperately to show their best selves on social media, but we don’t live in our best selves throughout the day. We live in an imperfect state, and so our comparison is usually based on a fallacy from the start.
Whether I’m making an upward social comparison, or a downward social comparison, after a momentary observation is made, I think it’s best to just stay in your lane and not give too much thought to what others are doing. With the upward social comparison, you may be able to build some motivation to grow a particular skill by watching someone else exhibit it. You can learn a bit that way, but sooner or later (hopefully sooner), you have to build your own systems and knowledge base. Once you’ve developed your skills in your own unique way, you don’t need that comparison. In fact, it may stifle your progress or limit your potential by boxing you into perceptions about an external reference.
With the downward comparison, honestly how good can you feel when you are doing something better than someone else? Especially if you know they are trying as hard as you are to achieve something. It really doesn’t make me feel good to see them struggle or fall behind in missing their goals.
The Slippery Slope of Comparison in My Own Life
I’ll give you some examples from my life. Comparison has been a slippery slope for me. As someone who grew up with modest means, I was always reminded that my single mother had to work two jobs to get me the things I wanted. She never shamed me about my wanting things, but I was very aware of her sacrifice because she wasn’t home much. I was a classic latchkey kid, and my mom left the house very early in the morning and returned late at night. Some of my first memories in daycare were being dropped off first in the morning and picked up last at night. But it was OK because I knew my mom was coming for me, and I understood how hard she worked. As a result, while I had many of the toys and stuff I wanted, what I really wanted was more time with her.
As I grew up, I didn’t need many flashy things, except for a collection of shiny shoes. I love patient leather, so I have shiny shoes in many colors, but I dress modestly and simply most of the time. I know very well that what looks good on the outside, can be rotten to the core on the inside. Sure I dress up to celebrate or just for fun to feel good, but it’s not something that drives my everyday routine.
When I wrote this poem entitled “Not a Redwood Tree,” my daughter was working in California and had the opportunity to hike among the beautiful redwood forests. Ordinarily, I would have been happy for her, a good nature walk is a beautiful thing, but I was struggling to feel close to her (and she was pushing me away as teenagers often do). I worried that I was losing her as the world began to open up and show these beautiful layers to her. Would she need me and her dad as much? Would our modest life seem worthwhile and would she be proud of it as she compared it to the lives she saw in California? I compared our life here with a Redwood Tree and it looked lacking at first. I wrote this poem to reason through my conflicting thoughts:
Not a Redwood Tree
by Jill Hodge
A perfect circle, we are not
No beams of sunshine, we’re a blot
No dewy perfection, we are matte
Not bathed in sweet, warm maple sap
None of those things are us,
No, no not that
We are not a Redwood tree staking claim to bold and tall
We bend, we fold, we break and fall
Never will we be perfect
We are mud, we are soul and earthly bound
No wings to fly, we claim them not
To flicker gold, like ember flames
We offer simple deeds
Everlasting love among trampled weeds
For perfection has no sway
When life grew from blood-soaked days,
From teardrops that fall from skies of grey
We were not the best, but rose despite the field
We sowed our seeds among the weeds
Surpass you did, our mortal unrest
Under a magenta sun setting South by West
Our love was wrapped in plain, brown wrapper
But from tattered, simple, bare
there came the foundation for happily ever after.
And as you look upon us now, please know that
You’ve sprung up to shatter the family ceiling
Because your path was forged from steel,
Perhaps dull but surely solid and unyielding
I am not a Redwood Tree. That level of natural perfection and magnificence is grand and all-encompassing when compared to me. I look small in its shadow. So why bother comparing myself to a standard that I can’t reach? I can’t be that grand, on the same terms as a Redwood Tree, so comparison steals my joy. When I wrote this poem, I was thinking about how our family life must have appeared imperfect to outsiders (especially as seen through the eyes of our teenage daughter). How it looks when examined in contrast to the beautiful, lush landscape of the Redwood forests, and yet as I wrote, I realized that I’m proud of the solid, stable, and even dull state of our family in comparison to the intricacies and riches of a dense forest in the metaphor that came to mind. We may not look as inviting on the surface, but we function quite well beneath it, and that’s what really matters in the end. How we love, how we provide support, how we connect, and how we enjoy our lives.
So, if you are comparing yourself to others and find yourself lacking, know that comparison can be a thief.
It can rob you of your present moment. It’s hard to be mindful in the moments you are living when you have focused your attention on what someone else has. You divert your attention away from self.
It’s usually a losing battle. You lose when you compare yourself to others, and if you tie your self-worth to those comparisons, you lose an authentic and potentially positive way of seeing your life and your accomplishments.
It can cause stress or resentment to build up around the person you are comparing yourself with, and it’s hard to find a resolution to those feelings because they haven’t done anything wrong to you. It’s not like you had a fight and can try to resolve it. You can get stuck in a one-sided loop, fixating on a problem that’s of your own making.
Comparison can make us feel envious, guilty, regretful, defensive; it can reduce confidence and self-esteem and bring on feelings of isolation. We can turn those negative feelings inward, affecting our overall mental health.
If your self-esteem is low or you have a lot of personal stressors, you may be especially vulnerable to the negative effects of comparison. You may not be motivated by someone’s successes and turn against yourself to downgrade or berate yourself for not achieving what they have. This is like piling shit on top of your troubles; don't do it to yourself. If you aren’t in the best place right now, your goal should be to stay in your lane and try not to compare yourself to others. You may not have the capacity to look at someone else’s success through a positive lens. It may not feel motivating to compare yourself with others right now, and that’s OK. Look inward instead and protect your mental state by finding the good in this moment.
Comparison can make us focus on the wrong things, especially outward appearance. People can look fine as hell on the outside, they may have a great fashion sense and show a beautiful face to the rest of the world, but be totally bankrupt and broken on the inside. They may be struggling with challenges we know nothing about, or have an interior mental state that isn’t so bright.
It’s like looking at a Monet painting. From a distance, there is cohesion and refinement in the overall painting, but once you examine the work closely you see the chunky brush strokes that may strike you as disheveled and uneven. Similarly, someone may look beautiful or pulled together at first glance or on the surface level but be quite disheveled and unappealing when one digs beneath the surface.
Side note: For a fun read on Monet's paintings as they relate to meditation, check out this article entitled 5 Ways Meditation is Like a Monet Painting. It's a fresh perspective on meditation, our thoughts when meditating, and Monet’s painting style and philosophy. I love it when meditation and art come together.
Anyway, it comes down to that popular saying, “Don’t compare your insides to someone’s outsides.” It’s based on how distorted some comparisons can be. This distorted view can sap our motivation and good feelings. On the other hand, maybe that beautiful someone has beauty on both the inside and outside. Shouldn’t we celebrate that? Shouldn’t we feel a collective sense of joy about that? Doesn’t that elevate all of us in some ways? A positive momentary comparison can feel good.
Compare Less | Enjoy Life More
For those of us who spend too much time comparing ourselves to others, I have a few ideas about what we should be doing instead. And yes, I will take my own advice here by diverting some of my mindless social media time to these activities instead.
- We should focus on our gratitude practice. Gratitude grounds us firmly in our own lives. We look inward, examine our life closely, and acknowledge the good people, positive moments, and accomplishments that are part of our life’s highlight reel. We stay mindful and present with what’s working in our lives, even as we have goals to improve that life in the future.
- We should be looking to find the right people to share our successes with and make a habit of doing that. However small they may seem, we can build on them, and we should claim them as yours. Talk about your accomplishments with someone who truly cares to listen. You are seeking a good listener, and someone who is invested in your life, so don’t talk about successes with casual friends or people who don’t care to know about your life. That can be a waste of time, and as they downplay or ignore your successes, it can take away some of your enthusiasm and positive energy, causing you to downgrade them as well. No, we are celebrating successes with people who are capable of celebrating you.
- We can journal to document our successes. Write them down so you can see them objectively and really take them in. You can also see your progress over time, even if it is small or incremental.
- To increase awareness of comparison, start noticing when you are doing it, and internally reset your thoughts away from it when they pop up. It’s like training your mind to push away from comparison thoughts over time.
- We can find role models who show more sides of their journey to us, whether on social media or in real life. Look for people who celebrate their successes by putting them in the context of the hard work they did to achieve them or who talk about setbacks along the way. People who present a more nuanced and complete picture of their journey.
- We should look for social networks that are less competitive in nature. Perhaps a beginners group on an activity that you are interested in, or a creative group where the focus is on each individual’s process and not the outcome. Remember to look for and find friends who support your wins, not ones who are in competition with you, or are too self-centered to see and acknowledge your shining moments.
There are also in-person social events. In NYC, I often look for creative networking events. I’ve found groups that include writers and artists that get together to socialize and connect over a meal and non-profits like BRIC Arts | Media House that support media professionals as they develop their skills through fun and interactive classes and events (pitch panels, media maker events). Most of these events are free. If you live in NYC, and are a media creative, this is a must-have resource.
As you temp down comparisons and stay firmly planted in your own life, I hope your gratitude and fulfillment will grow. Let me know how it goes. You can DM me on Instagram, or reply to this email.
📚Journal Prompts for a Grateful Heart
Today’s journal prompts will focus on gratitude since that’s especially helpful for grounding our thoughts in positive accomplishments and situations. Take just 5-10 minutes tonight to write out the following:
Remember to look inward to examine your life. See what makes you tick, what energizes you, and what makes you proud. May you find yourself to be enough, and may you stay on the bright side of the beat. 🌞
Music: My thanks to all the musicians who make incredible music and have the courage to put it out into the world. All music for my podcast is sourced and licensed for use via Soundstripe.
Songs in this podcast episode:
Quartz Crisis by Sam Barsh; Winning Streak by JeesGuy; The Astronaut by Neon Beach; Uptown Shuffle by Lunareh; Pyaar Kee Seemaen by Cast of Characters
LTVF Season One Music Playlist: Check out the songs that inspire me, and connect with artists from many genres who add to our collective, human soundtrack.
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