Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

Comparison is corrosive. It eats away at my ability to be content and confident. It is a poison that kills the love I have for myself.

Comparison is a thief of joy, and jealousy is often its partner in crime. Whether I’m comparing my body, abilities, or bank account to someone else’s, I do harm to myself if I allow that comparison to rob me of my self-satisfaction and engender envy. It’s a bad habit I’m still learning to break, but certain truths have helped me to compare and envy less—and to thereby do a better job of loving myself.

Comparison is a thief of joy because it fosters competition more than community: A posture of comparison often creates competition in an inappropriate context. Instead of celebrating diversity, comparison often requires that someone be labeled the winner and someone the loser. We view others as competitors instead of companions. This leads to a “better than versus worse than” mentality and feelings of superiority or inadequacy—neither of which helps us to be content and contributing members of a healthy community. When I bite my tongue for fear of sounding stupid, I am withholding my unique perspective—whether I’m with my classmates, colleagues, or family. If I assume I have more discipline than someone who weighs more than me, I am seeing a body instead of a human being.

Comparison is a thief of joy, because jealousy is often its accomplice: One of the first things I discovered about jealousy is that much of its power is derived from a lack of information—or ignorance. At its core, envy is either a lie or an illusion. Jealousy obscures my vision. It demands that I blind myself to the fullness of another person’s life—which includes joy and pain, successes and failures, peaks and valleys, flaws and beauty.

Jealousy has a way of focusing on one thing at the expense of others. Jealousy gives me an incomplete and deceptive picture. For example, envy ignores the hours of work that generated the salary—the sacrifice of time that could have been spent with friends or family. It tends to overlook the years of practice, confusion, or failure that preceded the success. It discounts the cost of the benefit.

Jealousy steals your joy by imposing unrealistic expectations: It is futile and irresponsible to look at one part of a person’s life and envy it. You have to look at the whole picture—the good, the bad, and the unfortunate. Life is not a pick-and-choose buffet where you can put just those things you like most on your plate. Life is more like a sealed container of strawberries. You have to take all of what you get—the sour and the sweet. Some pints of strawberries (like some lives) might look better than others (especially from the outside), but you’ll never find a perfect one. Everyone gets a few sour (or even rotten) pieces. No one’s life is completely free of loss, sadness, pain, shortcomings, disappointments, or insecurities.

It’s fairly easy to envy one aspect of another person’s life—his/her figure, talent, wealth, significant other, or intelligence. It’s much harder to examine and then envy a whole life—a complete compendium of experiences. When I have to weigh everything at once, I tend to be more satisfied with my lot. Because if I want anything someone else has (his/her education, self confidence, weight, et cetera), I have to take everything else that comes with it—be it a country house in the Hamptons, an eating disorder, perfect teeth, or an alcoholic parent.

I’m not saying every life balances out. Some lives have more blessings and some have more suffering and loss. Some people are wealthy; others are not. Some are born into, or able to create, more opportunities for success; others seem destined to flounder. But every life has its relative famines and bounties. Everyone gets some—some good and some bad. Granted, everyone’s “some” will be different.

Jealousy steals my joy when it makes me feel powerless: Even when I’m satisfied, I’m still sometimes affected by envy. Even when I’m happy with my life and wouldn’t trade it for another’s, I still really want this or that person’s salary/height/home/success/wardrobe/intelligence/hair/fill-in-the-blank. When the jealousy simply won’t abate, I refocus. I allow myself to feel the yearning, but I also seek a course of action. I ask myself if I’m willing to do what it will take to have what the other person has. If the answer is no, then the jealousy begins to evaporate. If the answer is yes, then my envy becomes the seed for a new dream and the motivation to nurture it. This prevents me from wanting the reward separate from the prerequisite work. It’s folly to covet the marathon winner’s medal if you’re not willing to run.

Jealousy steals my joy by undermining friendships: Sometimes jealousy is a subtler infection. One of the sadder truths I’ve learned about myself is that I often confuse envy with dislike. It’s something I’ve done since childhood. There was a girl in my grade school class that I disliked for the longest time. But as soon as I got a window into her suffering—as soon as I saw some of the imperfections in her life—I found her much easier to like. And that’s when I realized that I had never really disliked her, I’d simply been jealous of (and resented) the flawless life I’d imagined she was living. I’d allowed her apparent perfection to fuel my own insecurities. But once I saw the true sum of her experiences, I could let her have it all without envy.

Jealousy steals my joy by convincing me to give less—emotionally, financially, and relationally: Envy makes us want, and wanting often leads to withholding. We don’t donate any time or money of our own to a worthy cause. We assume those with more will take it on. We’re unable to genuinely congratulate someone who accomplishes a dream or goal we have for ourselves. We become miserly with our affirmations and good will (even our Facebook “likes”) when we’re jealous. Have you ever withheld a “like” because you thought the other person was bragging about his/her vacation, workout, wedding, or weight loss? I have—when I was jealous.

Envy often puts us in the mindset that another person’s good fortune leaves less in the world for us. And while some things in life are finite, most things are not. Love, joy, laughter, success, friendship, peace—these things can’t be used up.

How do I prevent comparison and jealousy from stealing my joy? The antidote is simple: It’s much harder for me to begrudge the blessings and beauty in another person’s life while also considering the losses and struggles that weigh him/her down. And while it may seem morbid to focus on this, sometimes it’s the only dose of reality that cures my compulsion to compare—killing envy before envy kills my capacity for pleasure.

Gratitude also helps. It’s difficult for me to be jealous when I’m grateful. Envy focuses on deficits and disparities. Gratitude reorients me towards what is good—my blessings. Gratitude isn’t simple-minded, dishonest, or forgetful. Gratitude does not require the denial of loss, lack, or hardship. What it does do, at least for me, is prevent those things that are good from being obscured by those things I’m coveting.

Being grateful takes me a step further, because true gratitude engenders generosity. And when I’m giving, I’m not looking for what I lack. Instead, I’m trying to offer something to others out of what I already have—whether it’s my money, knowledge, time, love, abilities, or talents.

This process isn’t perfect, but it helps me to compare and covet less. It helps me to not reduce people to what they have, don’t have, or look like. And, perhaps more importantly, it helps me to not determine my own worth that way. It keeps me humbled and grateful. And it reminds me that no one (no matter how perfect his or her life appears) gets through this earthly existence in a bubble of perfection and uninterrupted bliss. Every life will be touched by suffering and hardship. Every life will taste loss. Everyone has danced with insecurity or played with discontent. Flaws and fears—no one is without those.

Comparison is rarely constructive. Envy is a destroyer of joy. I might as well learn to love myself on my own terms—who I am, how I look, and what I’m capable of—because I’m the only me I’ve got.

Note to the reader: This is a piece I originally wrote for The Body Is Not an Apology.