The Alternative to Comparison

Dear Sherah,

Eight years ago I heard Sloane Crosley reading an essay from her first book, I Was Told There'd Be Cake. Have you read it? The essay was just my style and felt like a window into my other life. My edgier, cooler, more cosmopolitan life, in which I stayed single and moved to New York City and paid my dues in magazine internships before releasing my best-selling collection of essays that struck just the right balance between revealing and mysterious. (Everyone has their alternate lives. That's mine, and Sloane is living it.) Everything about her disarming self-deprecation and wry wit rubbed me exactly the right-wrong way. Listening, I could already picture her. More effortlessly cool than pretty, but pretty. Brunette hair. Glasses.

(And all that was just from listening to one excerpt on NPR. I was dreading reading the book.) 

I finally bought the book a few months later, and I begrudgingly loved it. It was entertaining, thoughtful, understated. She touched something that both compelled and threatened me. I remember finishing it late one night and then staying up for a while, thinking, trying to put a finger on exactly what I was feeling. 

Comparison, right? That nasty little thief that didn't let me enjoy my new favorite book. A voice that sounded smart said, "Put the book down and go to bed. Forget about it. Forget about her. Just keep your eyes on yourself and what you're doing and live the fullest version of your own life." Something about the voice didn't sound exactly right, but I went with it.

So that's Sloane. Now let me introduce you to my YouTube Pilates instructor, Cassie Ho.

I've been working out with Cassie for almost the entirety of our 20s, and we have an excellent, mutually beneficial relationship. She gives me free workouts and keeps me in shape, and I give her page views and thumbs up. 

It's so easy with Cassie. She's very successful and impressive, but I don't feel threatened around her. I think that's because there is no version of my life in which I am a peppy fitness instructor living in So-Cal, painting my nails a different color every day. She's a wonderful presence, but she's not soul-mate material like Sloane. 

I'm talking about two figures instead of real friends in my social circles, but maybe you can relate? There are the Sloanes of this world who spark all kinds of self-doubt and ingratitude even as you feel drawn to them. And then there are the Cassies who are easy to be with, even though (or maybe precisely because) they don't touch any core part of you. You admire them both, but one just kinda nabs you right in a soft spot, you know? 

So a couple of years ago I was sweating with Cassie, and I can't remember if we were crunching or lunging or what, but she started giving me a pep talk. 

"Do you ever look at other people and get jealous or side tracked?" she asked. "Like you see someone else's success and it makes you feel bad? Well stop doing that! Don't compare yourself to anyone! Just keep your eyes on yourself and what you're doing and don't worry about anyone else. The only thing you can be is the best version of you."

Just keep your eyes on yourself and what you're doing and don't worry about anyone else. The only thing you can be is the best version of you. 

It was exactly the way I've always dealt with comparison before, but suddenly I heard it for the pseudo-wisdom that it is. 

If our response to comparison is to shut other people out and dissolve into ourselves, then comparison wins. It shrinks and isolates. If we fight comparison by looking the other way, by putting the book down, by hiding the offender on our Facebook feed, by ignoring and forgetting, by protecting our ego from whatever threatens it: comparison wins.

Let me bring it in a little closer. While I was living in Pennsylvania, I went to yoga class most Tuesdays and Thursdays at the YMCA. On my first day, in sauntered a fit and serene woman. She had a smile on her face and a beautiful aura about her, like she was totally at peace with herself. I wanted what she had and judged it with equal intensity. I kept trying to close my eyes or look the other way as she stretched and balanced and contorted herself into various poses. She was really, really good. 

Our yoga instructor coached, "Keep your eyes on your own practice. When you look around, you start to feel either superior or inferior, and both are cancerous. Just stay present on your own mat." It's the typical wisdom around comparison, but it begged the question: why show up to class at all? If I wanted to be alone, I could have just stayed home and worked out with my bff Cassie. Going to a yoga class meant I was looking for some kind of connection and shared experience, not isolated self-focus. 

My mental tension with this woman waged throughout the class, and then the next class, and then the class after that. By about the fourth class, I realized I had a choice. I could either "stay present on my mat" and try to make sure it was as far away from her as possible. Or I could walk across the room. So after we all said our namastes, I walked over to her and smiled. 

"Hi, I'm Joy," I said.

"Hi Joy, I'm Candice." She was super duper nice, just like I knew she would be. 

"Good to meet you, Candice," I said. "So, maybe this is a little odd, but I wanted to tell you... You have this really beautiful aura about you when you walk into a room. You bring such a peaceful energy. Have you ever heard of Resting Bitch Face Syndrome? You have whatever the opposite of that is."

She laughed at the "Resting Bitch Face Syndrome" part and then said, "That's so funny you say that. My teenage daughter gave me a horrible attitude at breakfast, and I've been annoyed all day because of it. I'm glad it's not showing too much." 

We talked more about teenage girls, and then about yoga, and then about Pennsylvania, and so on. We didn't become best of friends, but it was enough to form a connection. And from that day on, every time she walked into the room smiling, I felt a little more joyful and at peace with myself. It went from Why is that woman so damn happy? to: Candice looks happy! That makes me happy. Working out next to her went from Ugh, is she just showing off? to: That's what my practice could look like if I keep at it. 

Here's my current working theory. When I feel the urge to judge or compare, what I'm experiencing is a defense mechanism against an opportunity for connection. I can choose to look away and avoid the risk of vulnerability, or I can choose to celebrate and invest. The more I practice this, the more I find that the wall between comparison and connection is usually only as thick as a genuine compliment, a prayer, or a text message saying, "I'm so excited to hear your great news. Let me take you out for a drink." 

There's an alternative to comparison, and it's not to keep our eyes firmly planted on ourselves. The alternative is to truly celebrate other people. The alternative is to buy their stock and hope that it goes up. The alternative is to roll up our mat and walk across the room.

When I'm stuck in comparison (me v. you), "rejoicing with those who rejoice" feels like jealousy and "mourning with those who mourn" feels like pity. When I'm connected to others (me w/ you), then even when my life isn't going very well, I get to participate in joy and celebration. And then when my life is going hunky dory, I get to participate in the deepening experience of suffering. I think that's as much the point of Romans 12:15 as anything else.

Comparison is the thief of joy. It's the thief of sharing, and connection, and big, open lives. 

Celebration is the key to it. 

I'm still disciplining myself in celebration, still practicing it, still pushing myself to do my own work and then get off my mat. But I knew I had internalized this when I opened a magazine a few months ago and saw a familiar name. This was 2015, which, as you know, had totally kicked me in the butt. And there was Sloane in a spread called "A Dinner Party With the Most Interesting People of 2015." Other guests included people like Trevor Noah, Dan Price, and some architect who's changing the world. I looked at the pictures of her surrounded by accomplished people, laughing with a glass of wine. 

I thought (and this is the honest truth): 

2015 was probably my worst year so far. But look! I'm totally killing it in my other life! 

Of course I know that just because someone is smiling in yoga class doesn't mean she didn't get emotionally sucker punched at the breakfast table. And just because Sloane is laughing in a magazine article doesn't mean that her entire year was a bed of roses and good reviews and excellent personal relationships.

But I hope that it was. And it made me really, really happy to see her laughing.