Struggling with Comparison
Anytime we start to compare ourselves to others—whether to build ourselves up or knock ourselves down—we are wading into muddy, un-productive territory.
I just finished up week #2 of my journey through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Feel free to go back and see my previous posts on this journey.
When did I become so whiny?
In recent months, a friend of ours has done very well with a debut novel that will be published by one of the big publishing companies next spring. (I’ll definitely be posting about it when it finally lands in 2021.) Her work is receiving some attention, and she deserves it! My initial impulse, of course, is to look at her success and be happy for her. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a little twinge of envy lurking deep inside.
A few nights ago, this envy reared its ugly head. I spiraled down into a pit of self-pity. I found myself asking these sorts of questions:
- Why am I a failure?
- What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I experience this kind of success?
- Who can I blame for my artistic shortcomings? Surely it’s someone else’s fault!
Look at this list of questions. Look at the key words in them: failure, wrong, can’t, blame!
Holy smokes! When did I become so whiny? When did I decide that it was okay to just abdicate my responsibility, to no longer care for and feed my inner artist?
This is not the attitude of a winner, and it is certainly not the attitude of an artist. Even in the moment—and I thank my meditation practice for this—I knew that these were the manifestations of The Resistance, the mysterious, pervasive force that works against our creative impulse, that tries to keep us from doing the things that we really want to do. I knew that these questions weren’t real, weren’t objective. No! They were part of a destructive piece of me, the green-eyed monster who looks to tear me down rather than build me up.
But sometimes it feels so good to indulge the monster. It feels great to have a pity party, to disparage yourself. I’ve never understood why, to be honest, but these feelings of sorrow and frustration are, somehow, alluring.
They are not, however, productive. No one ever got better by asking the questions above. No one ever moved forward and got productive by answering these questions built on the assumption of personal failure and the penchant for blame-shifting.
Thankfully, The Artist’s Way offered me an outlet to work through some of this. I went to bed, still in the thrall of this pitiful attitude, and woke up the next morning still feeling the full force of this funk. I went into my writing studio and began to pound out the Morning Pages. (REMINDER: Part of The Artist’s Way program is a daily set of stream-of-consciousness journaling that is supposed to be done first thing in the morning.) As I scratched out my three pages, these feelings began to work themselves out on the page. I could pose these questions in writing and have a sort of dialogue with myself that allowed me to work with them. I ended up posing a new set of questions for myself:
- The Resistance inside of you claims that you are not successful. Well, let’s think about that. What does success look like for you?
- Does your success require the validation of outsiders? Rethink this! It’s not in your control.
- What are the things within your control that you can implement to work toward success?
Reframing these questions—a skill learned from the blurts-to-affirmations exercise last week—helps me to deal with this. Morning Pages as a venue gives me the opportunity to interrogate myself, to look at what’s going on here and rethink these questions.
Morning Pages are powerful.
The Life Pie
So, what is real? What can I hang my hat on? One of the exercises that Cameron suggested this week, “The Life Pie,” gave me an opportunity to self-assess six dimensions that, more or less, constitute my whole life:
As you look at these categories, you might take issue with them. Some people, for example, might see “Romance/Adventure” as a category that they don’t care about. That’s fine. I imagine you can retool this exercise with the six areas of life you find most valuable. Once you do that, do the following:
- Draw a circle and divide it into six equal sections.
- Label your six sections.
- To quote Cameron: “Place a dot in each slice at the degree to which you are fulfilled in that area (outer rim indicates great; inner circle, not so great). Connect the dots. This will show you where you are lopsided.”
The idea here is that a perfectly fulfilled life would be a perfect circle, you would put your dot for each item on the perimeter of the circle and then connect them. (Okay, geometry-inclined friends, if you connect the dots with a straight line, then you are actually creating a hexagon. Fine.)
However, if you are human, then you probably don’t have a perfect circle. This exercise should help you figure out where you need to focus your attention so you can build toward the more fulfilling life you want (and deserve).
Here’s the deal: in spite of the whining that I had done through my little bout of self-pity and self-hatred, when I did this exercise, I realized that I feel pretty great about the life that I’m living. (Good for me, right!?!?) In most of these areas, I am quite content, even jazzed.
Your results may vary, but an honest assessment of where you are can’t hurt.
Moving On: Eschew the Comparing Mind
So, what do I do with these conflicting messages? On the one hand, my mind is telling me that I’m a failure because I’m approaching forty and haven’t won a National Book Award. On the other hand, my honest self-reflection tells me that I’m a happy person.
- Which would you focus on?
- Which would you think is more “real”?
The problem that this whole thing highlights is Comparing Mind. We get into these states where we fail to recognize that we are on our own path, and this path is not going to be the same as anyone else’s. We are unique creatures in a vast cosmos. Yet, we want so badly to compare ourselves to others. We want to look at them and try to put ourselves on their path and see where we are.
But this is apples and oranges.
Anytime we start to compare ourselves to others—whether to build ourselves up or knock ourselves down—we are wading into muddy, un-productive territory. The joke above about the National Book Award is not that far from reality. We tend to spend most of our time with the giants of our creative fields. For me, these giants include names like Charles Johnson, John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Jesmyn Ward. We look to these folks and we compare ourselves to them. But that simply isn’t fair.
How can I possibly compare a rookie to Hank Aaron?
It does us no good to compare ourselves to others.
The only thing you can really do is look at what you did today.
- Did you sit down at the keyboard and hammer out some words?
- Did you add a few sheets of paper to the stack on the right side of your typewriter?
- Did you dirty up the canvas a little bit today?
If you did, then you’re an artist, and you don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else, nor do you need some third party to validate your identity.
When you catch yourself being drawn into the comparing mind, take a deep breath and remember that these are only thoughts. Your thoughts are not who you are. Show who you really are by doing the work. Leave everything else to fate!