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Compare and Despair

Hannah Howard

Since childhood, we’ve looked to everyone else for cues about what to do and how to live. It’s entirely natural to search outward for information, or even inspiration. Yet, traveling down the rabbit hole of comparison, the one that leaves us feeling less-than and awful, can fast become much more destructive than helpful. It’s not a fun place to be.

Lao Tzu wrote, “when you are content to simply be yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” He makes it sound so easy: just stop. But how? Here are some strategies for leaving that dark, miserable hole so that you can bask in the sunshine of self-acceptance and gratitude. It’s better up here.

Never Confuse your Insides with Someone Else’s Outsides

On Facebook or at the annual holiday party, we get the greatest hits and the prettiest pictures: weddings, babies, breakthroughs. We don’t see life’s inevitable messy moments: infuriating commutes, sleepless nights, heartbreak, and the like. Comparisons are unfair. We tend to hold up the worst we know of ourselves to the best we presume about others. Moral of the story: give yourself a break. We never know the whole picture.

Comparison is the death of joy.

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The Mississippi river where Mark Twain wrote

Embrace Failure

Nobody trades stories of least embarrassing moments. Most giants in their fields have epic stories of mistakes and mess-ups. Even our heroes are flawed, human, and encumbered with problems. Trust me: the hard stuff makes you faster, sharper, and smarter. And there’s no way around a little failure.

Ask Yourself What You Want

Channel the competition urge for the good. Let’s say you’re totally jealous of your friend’s jam-packed social life. She always seems to be off doing fabulous things with interesting people, while you’re spending plenty of quality time with Netflix. You want something she has; now go get it. Ask a friend-crush to drinks, get tickets for a band you love…reframe the gloom as inspiration.

Compare You to You

Mark Twain famously wrote, “Comparison is the death of joy.” When it comes to measuring your life, you are the best yardstick. Where were you a year ago, five years ago, or ten? What incredible things have you accomplished? What blessing make you feel wildly lucky? Remember, nobody is better than you at being you.

Be Generous

That completive nastiness eats away at your insides. There’s something narcissistic and icky-feeling about the competition game. Be extra loving to yourself and others instead. Make it a point to focus on the good. Judging and criticizing others and judging and criticizing yourself often go hand and hand. Be nicer to you, and to those and your life, and there’s no room to pick everyone apart. Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy.”

Simply put, look for the joy.

Hannah Howard, journalist, copywriter, marketing strategist and food expert, has written for The New York Times, AMEX OPEN forum, Serious Eats, Grubstreet, refinery29, and