Creating Competition

Written on September 28th, 2016

I struggle day in and day out with comparing myself to others. A habit born out of a desperate desire to always be “good enough” in every context, it’s a dangerous pattern that consistently erodes my happiness. I can’t seem to look at any accomplishment outside the lens of how it stacks up to what others are doing.

I’ve known for a long time that this isn’t an ideal way to live, but I’ve never quite been able to shake the pattern. To a degree, it’s natural – standardized tests put you on a spectrum with your peers, curved classes force you to compete, and society as a whole often encourages a cutthroat, be-the-best sort of mindset. But while hard work is well and good, pitting yourself against others definitely isn’t.

I realized the magnitude of my problem over the past year after my grade graduated high school and began our collegiate lives. I didn’t intend to, but I found myself comparing my college choice with those of my classmates. I found myself comparing my direct admit BBA status with the pre-business standing of other students from my school. I found myself comparing my GPA, my extracurricular involvement, the number of parties I attended, the time I spent studying, the clothes I wore… honestly, I couldn’t do anything without fretting that it didn’t match up with those around me. And what’s worse, every time I achieved something I felt proud of, that pride seemed to stem from my comparisons with others as opposed to a genuine sense of self-satisfaction.

To be blunt: I was an emotional, competitive mess. And it was scary.

I know the kind of person that I want to be, and I know it’s not someone who’s obsessed with comparisons. I know that I value diversity and usually embrace differences. I know that two of my top strengths are empathy and inclusion. I know I’m a feeler on the MBTI, a person who deeply appreciates relationships and people. So why was I experiencing such an intense desire to outperform the world around me? It didn’t make sense, and it quite frankly made me worried that I was succumbing to negative personality traits.

After some painful self-reflection and more than a few moments of uncomfortable honesty, I realized the problem was entirely on me. Sure, western society builds us to be individualistic and competitive – but I was the one who allowed my insecurities to take it too far. I’ve always doubted myself and my lack of self-confidence caused me to grow dependent on outside comparisons to affirm my own value. I couldn’t just do something cool and be proud of it; I had to know that it was up to par with the cool things my peers were also doing.

Looking back, it’s such a ridiculous notion.

Don’t get me wrong – a healthy level of comparison with the world around you is good. There’s a reason that developmental benchmarks and averages exist, and I believe they can be really helpful tools for self-improvement. But it’s not healthy to judge every single thing you do against the actions of the world around you. It’s not healthy to only ascribe value to something you love when it’s also valued by your peers. More than anything, it’s not healthy to create competition where competition doesn’t exist.

I need to reframe the way I think about achievement and success. Instead of seeing my peers’ accomplishments as threats to my own, I need to see them for what they are: wonderful. Instead of looking at the awesome thing my old classmate is doing and being jealous that I didn’t do it first, I need to be proud that someone I know is out there crushing their dreams. I need to realize that my peers and I are different people with different goals who will succeed in different ways. Just because I’m not conquering the same experiences that they are doesn’t mean we aren’t both doing valuable things… it just means we’re not doing the same things. And what’s wrong with that?

Answer: not a thing.

I’ve come to accept that I might always struggle with insecurity and comparisons; I know that one of my biggest weaknesses is my need for external approval. But I also know that being aware of our flaws is one of the first steps to remedying them. It’s as simple as catching myself when I start to make a comparison and reframing my thought process to be healthier. It’s as simple as reminding myself that I’m not a failure just because I haven’t done the same things as others my age… and that no one else is a failure because they haven’t done the things I have. It’s as simple as making a commitment, day in and day out, to be better in all the ways that really count: kindness, compassion, acceptance, love.

As hard as it is for me to tame my feelings of jealousy and fear, it’s a lot harder to deal with a life full of miserable comparisons. My success does not come at the expense of others, and vice versa. No one is my competition except the person I was yesterday.