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The Lethal Fumes of Comparison

Comparison can be helpful, in small doses. But when it becomes the prime motivation for any activity, it can become deadly.

Comparison is not inherently bad. For example, Merriam-Webster defines comparison as the examination of two or more items to establish similarities and dissimilarities. So, why are there so many quotes and experts that point out the toxicity of comparison?

  • “Comparing yourself with others is one of the highest forms of self-destruction and people who love themselves don’t destroy themselves.”― Sarvesh Jain

  • “Comparison is the thief of joy.” - Theodore Rosevelt

  • “Don’t compare yourself to anyone in this world. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.” - Bill Gates

Each of those quotes shines a very negative light on comparison. But don’t think that comparison is necessarily a bad thing.

Comparison for the sake of learning can be incredibly helpful actually. For example, after one of my swim meets, I decided to put a video of my race side by side with the same race swum by an Olympian. I watched my reaction time compared to the Olympian’s. I analyzed my breakout and where I began to lose speed. I studied how far ahead she got per stroke and how her racing strategy was different than mine. And by comparing my race to the Olympian’s, I began to learn what I needed to work on most and uncover the different areas of my stroke that need improvement.

Comparison like the example above is not only helpful, but I would strongly encourage comparison for the sake of learning. But that is not the form of comparison that is lethal. That is not the form of comparison that was criticized in the quotes above.

The deadly comparison, the comparison that you need to avoid at all costs, is comparison for the sake of self-absorption. Everyone struggles with self-absorption in some way or another. But whether you are self-absorbed by thinking you are better than others or self-absorbed by thinking you are worse than others (I struggle with the latter), comparison compounds the effects of your self-absorption.

In a famous chapter on pride (self-absorption) in Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, Lewis writes,

‘Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are only proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.’

And that is how comparison becomes deadly, by comparing ourselves to others, we run the risk of inflating our ego (or, conversely, destroying our self-esteem) and injuring our ability to learn and grow in the process.

I know that this post has been a bit negative, but if there is anything to take away, it should not be that the comparison is ALL bad. I encourage you to think differently about comparison by keeping away from the ‘self-absorption’ form of comparison and striving for the ‘comparing to learn and grow‘ side instead.

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