Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” I’ve been robbed by comparison more times in my life than I’d like to admit.
Raise your hand if you were like me in your school world in that you compared yourself to your peers in terms of talents, friends, grades, awards, and appearance. I wanted to fit in so badly that I rocked a bowl cut and sweater vest just because the “in” people were doing it.
Raise your hand if you are like me in your career world in that you compare yourself to your peers in terms of salary, living space, job title, travel adventures, and appearance (does this ever go away?). I wanted a house so badly to keep up with what others had that I almost paid $40,000 over asking price for this house that had actual holes in it (which would have left me with -$40,000 to repair the holes).
Raise your hand if you are like me in your social media world in that you compare yourself to your peers, and even more scarily, to people you don’t even know, in terms of number of posts, likes, comments, and appearance (no, it doesn’t go away). I scroll through social media for fifteen minutes to my friends running on the ridgeline of a beautiful mountain or setting a new PR. After I escape this prison and put down my phone, I feel a little emptier, lower self-worth, and slightly more hopeless than when I entered.
Comparison: benefits and drawbacks
Comparison is an implanted biological impulse derived from our early days as a species when social contrasting was needed to figure out who the best hunter was to guide the hunting party and keep the tribe alive. To compare was necessary for survival. 500,000 years later, we still engage in social comparison all the time using it as a means to constantly evaluate our performances and construct our identity.
“Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” -Iyanla Vanzant
One of the few instance in which comparison can be beneficial to us is when it is used to fuel activity that enhances a healthy behavior. For example: engaging in a friendly competition with peers to see who can do the most consecutive days of running 1 mile can be a way to push someone to stay fit. The comparison of each person’s activities in order to generate more activity is a type of social ratchet effect. I have used comparison to get me out the door on days when I just didn’t feel like training. One recent time was on a rainy, windy, dreary day, when I was about to switch my workout to the next day (a sun-drenched beauty). I saw a video of David Goggins running in a downpour and thought, “if he can get his ass outside in the rain, so can I.” Though using comparison seems beneficial on the surface, most people experience a fall off their consistency once the comparative relationship ends. The people that form an internal, long-term habit from these social ratchets are in the tiniest minority. And just like that, this is about where comparison’s benefits end.
“There is only one thing that you’re always going to be better at than other people: being you.”
Beyond cave people needing to figure out who can best cook a Mammoth ribeye, comparison can be, and mostly is, detrimental to an athlete’s mindset. In using comparison to construct our identity, we end up basing our self worth on others’ actions as well as on our perceptions of how we think other people perceive us. Think about how messed up that is. The price tag we put on ourselves is not determined by the actual value of who we are or the work we are putting into our running, but by how we think we compare to others and how we think other people compare themselves to us.
Comparison fuels insecurities
When we compare ourselves to others, we typically compare their best stuff to our worst stuff. In our continual pursuit to feel like we are good enough, we fail if our “good” is defined against other people’s achievements. Comparison of this type can cultivate feelings of envy, jealousy, and inadequacy. To get out of this funk, we use comparison again by measuring ourselves up against people who have it worse. Comparison of this type can cultivate feelings of ego, brashness, and arrogance. Underlying all of it is an insecurity about who we are, feelings of disinterest, and a lack of motivation in running.
My best races have been the ones where I was focused solely on my personal best. In 2017, I went all in on 5k training and at each start line I stepped up to, I had my previous PR dangling like a carrot in front of my face. I never looked at anyone around me, didn’t care what age group I was competing in, I just wanted to unleash my latest training effort and set a new PR. It was one of the more rewarding, fulfilling, and successful seasons I’ve ever had. In 2019, along with a DNF in Riverlands 100, I ghosted training for months on end because it had become all about who I was racing, how I was comparing, and how I could be better than them.
Comparison creates “If only…” syndrome
As we sit in the bottom of the hole that we’ve dug with the insecurity shovel, we try to make ourselves feel better by rationalizing that we are in this hole because we don’t have what others have.
If only I had their youth…
If only I lived where they live with all those mountains and trails…
If only I had their opportunities growing up…
If only I had their body type…
If only I had the money they have to spend on the latest shoes, gear and race entry fees…
If only I had a friend group like theirs to go running with me…
If only I had the time they have to spend on workouts…
These aren’t just examples I came up with out of thin air. These are real “if only” statements that have pierced through my mind during my comparison binges. “If only” fights comparison with comparison much like fighting a fire with, “I’ll throw this burning log on top of that blaze to try and smother it.” My most commonly used statement is, “if only I had friends to run with”. I have great friends who love to run but they either don’t live close or our training doesn’t match. As an extreme extrovert, I love being around people and being a part of a team.
Comparison can trigger depression and anxiety
The more we compare ourselves to others, the more negative our mindset becomes. Our “if only” thoughts turn into a focus on what we don’t have which pushes us farther away from the uplifting feeling of gratitude and draws us closer to a mindset that we don’t deserve being good at running. The younger a person is, the easier this negative mindset becomes. The adolescent brain which sticks around until a person reaches their mid to late twenties is wired in such a way that it needs social feedback in order to construct a meaningful identity. Younger athletes create the majority of their identity based on comparing themselves to their perceived ‘high value’ peers.
Wow, comparison can really suck for our mindset. Let’s make it 10x worse! Hello Instagram
We also construct our identity using social rewards such as positive attention from peers. When we receive a compliment, we experience a release of dopamine similar to what we experience after using drugs. In our social media world, this is why people develop an actual addiction to social media. Every time someone likes, comments, shares our post, or follows us, we get a tiny dose of dopamine. It’s nice when we get it but after a lot of social media use, we develop a need for it. Furthermore, social media companies know this and prey on our need for comparison by engineering their platforms to keep us needing more. Strava, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and all the rest use the same cocktail to make tons and tons of money off of our comparison issues.
Comparison is rampant in sports
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
In my mindset and leadership coaching, I came across a very talented and accomplished student-athlete who had once loved playing lacrosse, but was experiencing a lack of motivation and a negativity that was leading to performance anxiety. They were playing like crap and on the verge of quitting, as were a few others on the team. After some discussion, we got to the root of the issue: their new coach had implemented a scoring system in which each player’s individual value was based solely on comparison to other people’s performances. One example: to get their players in better shape, the coach had them run each day and submit their times, reps, miles, etc. to the coach. The coach then released a public hierarchical chart with the players at the top getting rewards such as more playing time or free passes to sit out a drill. In my analysis, the top players felt like they were good enough because they compared favorably to the bottom players. The bottom players felt inadequate because they compared unfavorably to the top players. No one on this team was scoring their worth based on their actual value. Was this system motivating to some players? Sure, the runners at the top. But even for those people, their self worth becomes a thin pane of glass, ready to shatter the moment they have a bad day or all the “bottom players” quit thereby removing the measuring stick of their achievement.
Tools to combat comparison
“Expectation is the root of all heartache” -William Shakespeare
Create your own scorecard
For the lacrosse player I worked with, I had them create their own scorecard where they took all of their running stats and logged them each week on a chart for their eyes only. I also had them log their R.P.E. for each workout (Check out Rate of Perceived Exertion here). They worked to look only at their scorecard, not the coach’s scorecard, and value their progress each week. More important than their stats, I had them focus on their R.P.E. and feel gratitude for being able to put in great personal effort. Low and behold, their confidence grew, their self worth increased, and the price tag they placed on their identity became too expensive for anyone else to purchase. They started performing with a freedom, a smile, and got their swagger back. As runners, we love to compare our results, our paces, our miles, and our adventures to other runners. A strong, healthy mindset limits this comparison and and focuses on our own scorecard.
Focus on effort, not results
There are some great mantras out there such as, “compete against you yesterday not everybody else today”. I think this is a step in the right direction but even comparing today’s you to yesterday’s you isn’t always productive because there are so many uncontrollable, changing factors that go into our running performance from one day to the next. A headache comes on, we slept poorly, the humidity rose, the tail wind is now a head wind, a tight calf, and so on. I encourage athletes to eliminate comparison and simply construct their self worth based on the effort they put into each activity. I’ve had workouts where I didn’t hit any of the splits Coach Stringbean gave me and felt horrible but he took one look at the R.P.E. and texted something along the lines of, “Ev, you pushed yourself to an R.P.E. of 9?? Way to get after it. You crushed it today.” #bestcoach
Remove external expectations
We love to tell people our goals, have people root for us, or say to someone, “I’m going to win this one for you!”. The moment we share our goals, hear someone tell us that we are awesome, or promise something to someone, an external expectation is created. This adds unnecessary pressure to perform with heavy thoughts such as: “will they think less of me if I don’t hit my goals?”; “They think I’m awesome, I have to uphold that”; “If I don’t win, I’ve broken my promise and failed them”. The only expectation we should ever set for ourselves is to give our best effort to each moment on our feet. Start each run with an openness to grow rather than an expectation to finish.
Use Social Media Strategically
We know the addictive properties of social media and how it purposefully exploits our weakness to compare to keep us hooked. But, it isn’t all that bad for adults if used strategically (it is pretty much all bad for adolescents). As you scroll, take note of which posts give you a positive boost or a smile and which trigger slight resentment or envy. Then, make healthy follow choices. We are more likely to feel the negative stuff from people we know or are closest with and more positive stuff from people we don’t know. I love a good David Goggins rant from time to time so he has become a strategic, mentally positive follow for me. But, everytime I see a picture of another lavish travel adventure a peer of mine goes on, I just feel jealousy so I limit those types of posts from appearing on my feed. The less we use social media, the more time we have for actually being aware of our life, getting outside, and doing what we love, RUNNING!
Ultimately, comparison is like a rocking chair. It gives us something to do but it doesn’t get us anywhere. A strong runner’s mindset is focused on their path only and celebrates the effort and consistency they are putting into their life, not what other people are putting into theirs. Train for you, run for you, race for you. #runyourlife
Evren Gunduz is a leadership and mindset coach for teen athletes (enjoylifeeducation.org) in which he trains individuals and teams to construct leadership skills, mental strength, and high achieving culture. He has been a competitive runner since 2014 and has been coached by Joe McConaughy since 2017. With a passion for trails and a love of suffering, he has completed ten ultra distance events ranging from 50 kilometers to a 100 miler. He lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife Tara who is a high school math teacher and certified yoga / mindfulness instructor. Together they run, ski, play coed soccer and get to coach a high performing varsity girls soccer team.
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