Welcome to Episode 8 of Optimal Living Advice, the podcast where we take any questions you might have about life's struggles and get them answered for you here on the show.
I’m your host, certified life coach Greg Audino.
Today's question is all about when and how we compare ourselves. I’m gonna throw it out there from the beginning — comparing ourselves to our past selves and/or others is not a bad thing. It is necessary. Before you come to take my head off, listen to the question, give me a chance to offer my two cents, and see how you feel in another five or so minutes.
Here we go…
QUESTION: “Hey Greg: What I sometimes do is I compare the actions and successes of the present me to the previous version of me. For example if I’m studying 6 hours a day or 3 hours a day, I compare that to what I used to do in my final year of high school. So I keep on comparing the level of my success. Do you think living in the past or drawing motivation from the past in this way is healthy? Would you recommend it? Why or why not? And why do you think we do it?”
Why Do We Compare Everything?
Good question. I want to open this answer by playing Mythbusters for a second: I do recommend comparison because we definitely need comparison. We need comparison to our past selves, our future selves, our best or worst selves, and contrary to popular belief, we really need to compare ourselves to other people as well.
Our identities depend on the opposite to exist; just like light can’t exist without dark and deep can’t exist without shallow. It is by comparing our current selves to different versions of ourselves or others that we’re able to gauge our progress, decide what we like and don’t like, keep ourselves safe etc. (Editor's Note: Learn more about “social comparison theory” in the psychological field.)
Therefore, I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about the comparison if it’s done the right way. BUT if it’s not done the right way, that’s when things can go haywire.
What is Unhealthy Comparison?
So, asker of this question, let’s examine how comparison could go right or wrong in your case. We’ll start with how it could go wrong so we can end the episode on a good note. If, when comparing your current self to your past self, you are:
- ignoring the differences in your needs between past and present
- ignoring the differences in your responsibilities and priorities between past and present
- obsessing over working hardest instead of working smartest
- being impatient with yourself or shaming yourself
- focusing more on the comparison than you are on the present tasks at hand
Those are examples of unhealthy comparison.
The theme here is failure to acknowledge changes within you and around you. You are living an entirely different life than you were in your final year of high school, whether that was one year ago or fifty years ago. I know life looks a lot different to you right now and you need to accommodate these differences. You might need to study more, or you might need to study less. The comparison will not work to your advantage if you try to live the same life you did in the past and get weighed down by trying to maintain your same standards from that life — that life is gone.
And it’s okay that it’s gone as that’s how life works. Be thankful for what you learned from it.
When is Comparison Healthy?
Now let’s talk about how this comparison can go right — and it’s virtually the opposite of everything I just listed.
The comparison can go right if, when you are comparing your current self to your past self, you are:
- being cognizant of how your needs have changed between past and present
- being cognizant of how your responsibilities and priorities have changed between past and present
- preoccupying yourself with working as smart as possible rather than as hard as possible
- being patient with yourself and exploring why you might be comparing yourself so much
reflecting on and using lessons learned from the past in ways that they can still be effective in your new, current life
- not letting your comparison take up so much mental space that it’s interfering with your ability to work or live to the best of your ability
The theme here, then, is being understanding of the changes that have taken place within and around you. You realize it’s a new life with new circumstances, and you look to your past as a means of guiding yourself rather than judging yourself; motivating yourself rather than depleting yourself. And because you used the term motivation in your question, I’m inclined to believe your comparison is at least healthy in that way, which makes me happy.
The comparison to ourselves must be done with respect to the fact that each situation we find ourselves in is unique — and that each situation others find themselves in is unique — so you really can’t live and die by the sword and take comparison too seriously because there will always be differences, most of which we have no idea about.
One Question to Ask Yourself When You Compare
All of the pieces are moving, except for one piece that is, thus making it the most reliable comparison to make, which is: Was I doing my best then and am I doing my best now?
Sure, we’re always doing our best in life with what we’re given and what we’ve been tailored to believe. But in this scenario, you might ask yourself if you’re doing what you need to fulfill whatever success means to you in relation to the work or study you’re referencing.
Like I said earlier, you might need to do more than before or less than before. So not only does this question enable you to better hold yourself accountable, but if you find yourself not putting your best foot forward the way you used to, it might also enable you to dig deeper and ask why the motivation might not be the same.
Such questions allow great reflection about your values and how present they are in your work. Typically, if you aren’t putting your best foot forward at work, it’s probably because you don’t enjoy it as much as you could, and should that be the case, what starts as comparison can lead to great realizations, and potentially great life changes if those realizations are acted upon.
So comparison is more than natural. It’s very healthy if it’s done properly. Just stay aware of what your inner chatter sounds like during these comparisons and try to extract all of the benefits comparison has to offer rather than all of its drawbacks.
That last sentiment goes for all of you. Yes, we need comparison and it only has to be as scandalous as you make it out to be. I hope everyone was able to take something away from this episode and maybe feel a bit better about the relationships you have with yourselves. It’s all good, it’s all there for a reason, and it can change if it needs to.
We love the questions our listeners submit, so feel free to send your own to firstname.lastname@example.org
We’ll devote an episode to your question, and hopefully help you and all the other listeners. Looking forward to hearing from ya. Take care, everyone.