Avoiding “Comparisonitis” as an Author
According to a study of 1,800 subjects cited in Forbes, “more than 75% of people reported feeling envious of someone in the last year.” The main source of human envy, researchers found, was comparing ourselves to people of the same age and gender. This pain is widespread and has been for a long time. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt said over 100 years ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” But the issue is far older than Roosevelt.
Indeed, comparing ourselves to the people around us is an evolutionary trait. Lots of animals share this same concern and with good reason. After all, relative social success is a hierarchical game in which humans and other animals participate. Those who “win” tend to direct group activities, eat before subordinates and pass on their genes. Lower-status individuals, meanwhile, often eat less, struggle to find a mate and live more stressful lives.
Modern civilisation is no different, either. The rich, on average, live longer. The better looking get hired more often. The famous have more favourable social interactions. Across the board, a higher status position typically correlates with a happier life. But it’s about perspective. Introduce a high-ranking social animal to a new group where they rank lower, for example, and their health deteriorates, even when no other factors change.
As authors, we are far from immune to “comparisonitis” as we call it. However, if you think you’re lagging behind author-friends and it’s affecting your happiness, know that understanding the science can help. Will minimising the impact of comparisonitis on your life be easy? No, but using simple tips outlined in today’s blog post can alter your environment and perspective, minimise your struggle and allow you to overcome comparisonitis as an author.
Horses are powerful creatures, but trained riders can control their emotions to some degree using blinkers. Small eye guards that narrow a horse’s field of vision, these blinkers make them less likely to see anything that might spook them. Now, as an author, wearing a physical blinker obviously won’t lower your anxiety levels in the same way. That said, blinkering yourself in different ways can help you cut yourself out of a cycle of harmful behaviour. Instead of a physical blinker, though, yours must be a digital or mental one. In today’s world, social media is often the best place to start, given that it’s a huge source of visual stimulus and social comparison.
Yes, social media sites can create more opportunities, but they also invite more comparison. Instead of comparing ourselves to 10 local writers, as we once would have, now we see thousands, many of whom come from the vocal top 1%, making it harder to feel like we’re doing well. Curate your feeds, however, and you can minimise the damage. You could, for instance, limit how much time you scroll or unfollow accounts that trigger comparison. On the mental front, ask yourself, “What can I control in my business?” Using blinkering to stay focused on your operation can cause FOMO, but it will help you avoid comparing yourself if you stick with it.
Remember that people only let you see what they want you to see. One day they’ve written 10,000 words, the next they’re at a glamorous party with their bestseller friends. What you must understand, though, is that it’s a carefully crafted narrative. Often, that 10,000-word day they’ve captioned with fire emojis and “#hustle” doesn’t accurately reflect their average day. Other days, they might only write 2,000 words. Some, none at all. And champagne-fuelled parties are rare for 99% of authors. Many who give this impression of living a work-hard-play-hard lifestyle omit their lazy days and the 3-star hotels they use to afford the travel costs of attending an event.
Indeed, you can’t trust social media, but neither can you trust your mind. If you’re not a bestseller yet, you might imagine riding that high for years when it happens. Realistically, though, the excitement passes quickly. This phenomenon, called “post-Olympic depression,” comes from the sporting world but applies to all sorts of achievers, including entrepreneurs who make life-changing money overnight. Contrary to what they thought would happen, having scaled their personal mountain, these “winners” hit a slump and learn that winning doesn’t create happiness. What did make them happy was progress, which they can no longer achieve after completing the game. Hence, don’t feel bad if you’re not winning; revel in the fact you still have levels to unlock.
Aim for Balance
We have already established that feeling like we’re winning a status game is vital for our happiness and even long-term health. What we haven’t addressed, though, is that we can choose the status games we play. Often, without knowing it, we narrow our focus and invest too much of our identity into one game — say, authorship — but spreading the net wider can help you avoid letting comparison ruin your daily experience. Status expert Will Store highlights this idea when discussing his book The Status Game on apodcast. When asked about achieving happiness on this topic, he answers:
“A really healthy life is one in which there’s several different sources of status.”
This insight suggests that we perceive our social status as a sum of many parts and, thus, can improve how we see ourselves by playing multiple status games. For instance, as well as hanging out with authors, you could also join a sports team or charity community. That way, when you feel like you’re lacking on the author front, you can reflect on the good you do for charity compared to others, or the success you see in your local sports games as a key team member. You might still think you rank poorly in one field, but a high ranking in another will bring up your overall self-imposed score. Playing multiple status games helps you diversify your self-esteem which is vital for emotional stability.
In 2020, Healthline published an article that outlined an actionable exercise individuals can practice to battle harmful thoughts of comparison: dissociation — the act of looking at your mind as two distinct personalities. One is factual, the other critical. Sometimes, seeing the critical thoughts as words coming from a totally separate person, and giving that person a name — say Ciara — also helps. Separating your factual thoughts from self-criticism, the article explains, can help you analyse your thoughts more objectively and teaches three lessons:
- “Naming something gives it less power.”
- “Starting a conversation” helps you analyse your behaviour.
- It helps to remember the mantra: “If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself.”
Consider talking a similar approach to your own comparisonitis. Imagine the critical thoughts as a nasty person called something like Blake, and visualise that person berating a friend of yours with the same critical words. In that situation, would you tell that friend they should listen to this overly harsh critic? Should they beat themselves up if they aren’t reaching comparable success to their peers? Is listening to Blake going to serve them? Consider the advice you’d give them when they’re suffering at the hands of this bully that constantly compares them to others. Now take your own advice and deal with your critical voice accordingly.
Is a weapon inherently good or bad? The answer: neither. In the wrong hands, a weapon can help a dictator oppress but, in the right hands, it can help a hero stand up to a villain. Your perception of the weapon depends how you frame it. Comparison is similar. Indeed, researchers of a “landmark” 1995 psychology study note that bronze-medal-winning Olympians “on the whole, visibly [appear] significantly happier than the silver medallists who beat them.” They found this happens because bronze medallists tend to feel fortunate, having beaten fourth place to a medal, while silver medallists mainly focus on missing first place. Framing shapes their reality.
What we can learn from this study is that we can’t stop comparing ourselves but we can change how we do it. Hence, if you can’t blinker yourself from points of comparison or use coping tactics to minimise their power, try reframing them in a way that gives you a mental advantage. When an author-friend hits the New York Times list, don’t think, “It should have been me.” Instead, think, “They did so well! As I know them, I’ll ask them what they did and do the same myself.” Likewise, don’t consider early indie authors as the lucky ones who got in before most of their competition. Think of them as explorers, without whom you might never have published at all.
Comparing yourself to others is inevitable. It’s an instinct and will never go away no matter how high you climb in your various social hierarchies. Know, though, that comparisonitis doesn’t have to be a destructive force in your life. Learn how to channel it in productive ways and not only will you gain more success but you will also generally live a happier existence.
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