One of my slightly bad habits involves looking up famous people whom I admire and then seeing what, exactly, they were doing when they were my age. This used to be a fun and somewhat vague goal-setting activity, in which I would find out what say, David Bowie, was doing when he was 22 years old so I could try to achieve something similar by that age. But when I recently entered what allegedly are considered my mid-twenties, this little exercise started to become a bit less fun.
I just turned 24, and while I realize it would sound ridiculous to think of this as “old” it does feel strange given that my early twenties were largely consumed by a global pandemic. I was struck by Neil’s recent article about the significance of birthdays and the influence of our societal (and internal) expectations associated with ages. Discovering what someone you admire was doing when they were your age (or younger) can easily provoke feelings of inadequacy, dread, or even failure. Comparing ourselves to other people using this framework will always create unfair comparisons and ultimately do us a disservice.
For multipotentialites, any comparisons we make between ourselves and other people will be especially flawed. You, as a multipotentialite, probably haven’t dedicated as much time or resources to one specific pursuit as someone who’s a specialist in that area. On the other hand, you are likely highly skilled in numerous other areas in a way that specialists tend not to be. For these reasons, a happy, fulfilled, and successful multipotentialite’s life can look very different from the life of a happy, fulfilled, and successful specialist. So why do we tend to compare ourselves to people whose paths will likely look very different than our own?
At the same time, as we discover more successful and inspiring multipotentialite role models, we may also find ourselves comparing our current work and life situations to theirs. Several flaws can exist in these comparisons too, since people who have already dedicated time, effort, and resources to developing a multipotentialite-friendly career model and lifestyle may appear to be “ahead” of us in life.
If you’re like me, comparing yourself to other people feels almost like a reflex. My mind often forms comparisons before I’m able to intervene with logical considerations, like whether it’s even reasonable to compare myself to a particular person or whether anything beneficial can come of it. But as I started to give more thought to this topic, I realized just how often I catch myself making comparisons between myself and other individuals—whether they be public figures or people I know personally.
I initially thought that it would be ideal to just stop comparing myself to other people. After all, stop comparing yourself to others is a fairly familiar piece of advice, and a cursory search returns plenty of listicles offering tips for avoiding social comparisons. But I ultimately realized that, since the mental reflex of forming comparisons happens so quickly, the energy I would spend trying (unsuccessfully) to suppress them would be better spent reframing the comparisons I do make. More importantly, I also recognized some clear instances in which forming social comparisons has actually served me in a constructive way in the past.
Since it’s difficult to quash comparisons before they’re formed in my mind, I decided to come up with a new way of thinking about comparisons, and a straightforward method to make them healthy and constructive rather than negative and potentially toxic. (Take that, anti-comparison listicles!) I have been applying this way of thinking about comparisons for about six months now, and it has helped me be more fair to myself in considering where I am in life, and it has also tangibly benefited my overall mental health.
When I find myself forming a comparison, here are five questions I immediately ask myself. These questions mainly center on reframing comparisons that hold the potential to make us feel inadequate or inferior—and if we’re being honest, most comparisons we form have the capacity to do that! These questions enable me to quickly frame comparisons in a constructive way rather than allowing them to become negative.
1. Why did I form this comparison?
Comparisons often arise in our minds as a result of a particular event or interaction, and the origin of a comparison can affect the way we relate to the comparison moving forward. Clearly identifying why you find yourself forming a comparison between yourself and someone else is the crucial first step in making it constructive.
For example, when you meet someone new for the first time who has several things in common with you, your mind may naturally form a comparison. In another instance, maybe one of your friends or colleagues just received an accolade for their work and it leaves you feeling a bit insecure. Or, (potential yikes) you stumble across someone on social media who appears to be thriving in areas that you are still working hard to pursue.
Wherever the comparison originated, it helps to identify the reason you formed a comparison in the first place. Frequently, this reason incorporates some similarity between yourself and the other person. Comparisons can also involve the other person embodying some facet of what you want for your life or who you want to be.
2. How do our paths differ?
Each individual’s path truly is different. I suspect this idea is one that we multipotentialites are pretty familiar with, but might struggle to really internalize. To make comparisons a bit more fair to yourself, try identifying key differences between another individual’s path and your own. Maybe the other person has utilized resources that you didn’t know about or couldn’t access. Or, the other person might be a specialist who has been devoted to one career path while you have explored and pursued several. Consciously identifying these differences is a key component of making a comparison constructive, because simply being aware of them will likely enable you to be more kind to yourself.
One multi-instrumentalist and songwriter I admire is Elise Trouw, and she happens to be a few months younger than me. When I first discovered her music, I felt like I was behind because she had independently released several successful singles and an album. While I do have a lot in common with her, I found that it wasn’t fair to myself to compare my own path to hers. She committed to pursuing her music career in her late teens, while I was attending college and creating a foundation for myself to pursue multiple careers in addition to music. For this reason, I can learn from her skill as a multi-instrumental musician and independent artist, but it doesn’t make sense for me to compete with her career timeline.
3. What, specifically, do I admire about this person?
In many instances, when we compare ourselves to other people their strengths or successes seem to automatically outshine our own. According to social comparison bias, we may tend to experience feelings of jealousy or inadequacy based on our perceptions of others’ social status, achievements, lifestyles, or wealth. To overcome this thought pattern, it can help to focus instead on specific characteristics that the person possesses that you admire.
When I was in high school and college, I often caught myself making comparisons between myself and my older, more experienced bandmates. While I definitely looked up to these individuals, our relationships could also be strained by somewhat arbitrary competition. Looking back, I often admired my bandmates’ determination and resolve, their dedication to improving as musicians, and their evident confidence in their creative choices. Even in retrospect, pinpointing which of those individuals’ attributes I respected and appreciated the most helps me to positively reframe past comparisons that were unhelpful or grounded in competitiveness.
4. How do I want to be more like them?
This question helps to bring even more specificity to a comparison and alleviate vague feelings of “I want a lifestyle that’s more like theirs” or “because they had already accomplished X at my age I’m a failure.” Negative social comparisons can easily leave us with an underlying sense of shame or helplessness. Whether your comparison involves someone you know personally or a public figure, pinpointing how, exactly, you would want to be more similar to someone helps establish and maintain a sense of agency in relationship with the comparison.
For example, in the case of David Bowie, I really admire his musical and stylistic exploration and his authenticity to himself as his artistic identity evolved throughout his life. A few ways that I would like to learn from him and be more like him include creating art and music using a variety of mediums, making clear creative choices, and stepping out of my comfort zone to find inspiration and explore new things.
5. What can I learn from this comparison to actively apply in my life?
This question helps me to extrapolate any broader takeaways from a comparison that I can actually use in my own life. For example, I recently compared myself to one of my collaborators who has independently released music and who gigs frequently. Looking deeper into my comparison, I realized that it doesn’t make sense to procrastinate by waiting until I feel “ready” to put my art or work out into the world—my collaborator’s path has taught me that you learn and improve by doing it.
From another recent comparison between myself and a talented visual artist I know, I was reminded that developing a new skill (especially one that may not seem to come naturally to you) truly does require time and patience. At the same time, these pursuits can promote growth and gently coax us out of our comfort zones.
Comparing myself with Elise Trouw helped me to realize that I wanted to come up with a clear plan for myself as an independent artist and focus more on personal branding. Revisiting my past comparisons with my bandmates enabled me to cultivate a greater awareness of how I have grown as a musician and collaborator, and express gratitude for what I learned from those individuals. My initially vague (and slightly stress-inducing) comparison with David Bowie helped me to identify more artistic opportunities for myself to explore and guided me to begin seeking out inspiration in more unconventional places.
By intentionally shaping and reframing comparisons—even those that might originate from a negative or unhealthy place—you can take control of how you think about yourself in relationship with other people. By approaching comparisons in a fresh and constructive way, other individuals’ wins and successes can ultimately support your growth and foster new insights. Most importantly, actively reframing potentially destructive comparisons can enable you to be more fair to yourself (and your multipotentiality) on a daily basis.
How have social comparisons impacted your life or your mental health in the past? Have you experienced success in turning unhealthy comparisons into something positive?
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