Alice had experienced many successes in her youth. She was gifted with athletic skills, intelligence, and an outgoing personality. She qualified for a scholarship in college and graduated with honors from a prestigious program. Alice enjoyed the praise of others, and felt she should be happy but was not. She had developed the habit of comparing herself with others. When she could not keep up with what she believed were others’ expectations, she felt anxious and depressed. She would say, “If I make a mistake, others will judge me, and I will be nothing!”
Perfectionism is a topic of interest to many because of the impact it can have in individuals’ lives. There is nothing wrong with having a desire to succeed in life and doing what it takes to accomplish it. The problem is when individuals get stuck in the minutia in order to avoid fears such as self-doubt, impressing others, or failure.
It is how you go about your goals and behaviors that make the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. If you are not satisfied with the way your life is going because you feel the need to keep up with certain image, you may be experiencing unhealthy perfectionism.
There is nothing wrong with contrasting and comparing. From the time we were kids we learned about opposites, similarities, and phrases such as “which one is not like the other” from books or children’s TV shows. Every item we own, food we eat, job or career we hold is because our amazing mind provides evaluations regarding what may work best for us. Comparison can help us make choices in our external world.
However, when it comes to our internal experiences, our mind may provide advice regarding our position in life in relation to that of others, which is not helpful. Joe runs faster than I do. Chloe is more successful than I am. Charlie is smarter than me. The Jones’ children are better behaved than mine. But as you may already have discovered, comparison doesn’t work quite the same in our internal world.
It has been said that, “the brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon.” Comparing thoughts may become incessant. The amazing mind tries to come up with solutions that may lead you to the comparison treadmill. Sometimes, individuals report comparison is useful because it makes them work harder. Comparison may work temporarily, but the longer individuals with unhealthy perfectionism try to keep up, the more exhausted they become.
Lessons from Nature
Imagine that you found thousands of seashells along an exotic beach. Most of them appear intact, and some are slightly chipped. Some of them are multi-colored, and others are gray and dark. Some have lines and grooves and others look smooth. They vary in shades and shapes. Each of them is different and that’s what gives them their uniqueness and beauty.
If the seashells could talk, they could tell you countless stories about their journey to the shore. They would speak of hardships and storms they endured and how forceful waves brought them there.
Each seashell has had its own journey. The distress from being in the ocean may not be obvious. But, would it be right to say that one is above or below others? If you were a seashell and you noticed another one that appeared to have no flaws and no apparent signs of distress, would it be fair to say that it has had a better life than yours?
Our human tendency to compare is highly ingrained. Our ancestors needed a quick and judgmental mind in order to stay alive. We also strive for survival and acceptance instinctively. Our mind constantly provides us with advice to do so.
When the mind becomes overzealous about protecting us, the challenges crop up. The mind creates thoughts and judgments we believe, and eventually we become stuck. We become distressed and in turn begin to create mental habits that may end up being unhelpful in the long run. Constant comparison is one of them.
Learning to Watch Your Thoughts
This is an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) principle that can help you create distance between you and your thoughts. If you are inclined to regularly compare yourself with others, you can begin to change that habit. You can learn to notice your thoughts instead of being entangled with them.
Sit still and watch your thoughts: Take at least 3-5 minutes twice daily to sit quietly and observe your thoughts. Notice how your mind — the time machine — takes you back to the past or the future. Pay attention when the thoughts are about the present moment. Become curious about what your mind does and when it urges you to jump on the comparison treadmill. Acknowledge that and whatever else may come up during your practice.
Write your thoughts on paper: Take at least 5-10 minutes twice daily to write everything the mind is saying in that moment. Notice when the thoughts are judgmental and if they are helpful or unhelpful. Keep noticing as you write them. You can become an observer of your thoughts by writing the old fashioned way.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Don’t let that impostor get in the way of finding joy and more meaning in life. Be patient and remember that it is about the process!