How A Rude Shock in a Yoga Class Got Me To Confront An Exhausting Habit
After four months of cramming my yoga mat on the floor of my busy living room, in amongst plastic whales, teethers and the detritus of baby-food missed in the flurry of a nightly clean up, I was excited to do my first class back at an actual yoga studio. A semi-regular yoga practice had been an anchor for me through lockdown, allowing me to reconnect with my body, embrace movement and flow, and focus on my breath in amidst a sea of uncertainty and anxiety. Yoga felt like the perfect invitation to connect with my felt experience of moving and being, in a world that is so suffocatingly obsessed with proving and doing.
But, I got a rude shock a few min into my first communal yoga class back, when I scanned around the room, swiftly evaluated the poses of those around me and immediately noticed a loud thought arising, that said…
Barely 5-min into a class that I attended for my own personal progress and growth, and I was already scrambling to compare myself with other people, and judging myself as good or bad depending on where I happened to fit on the yoga-doers hierarchy… in a GENTLE FLOW class, less than ONE WEEK after a 4-month lockdown.
Huge Buddha energy right there.
Why Are We Obsessed With Comparing Ourselves to Each Other?
My rush to comparison is a deeply human habit, and one that I have had plenty of practice with throughout my lifetime. In fact, comparing ourselves with others has been a staple of the human experience, given that we learn a great deal about how to behave and how to adhere to social norms based on observing other people’s behaviour, and the subsequent results or consequences of that behaviour – imagine a mum at a grocery store pointing out another well-behaved toddler to her own explosive child in full tantrum-mode, and saying “If you’re good like that little girl you can get a finger bun with sprinkles for the car ride home…”
The desire for status is also a feature we’ve inherited from our mammalian ancestors, and one that requires constant comparison and analysis of other people’s levels of power and prestige, so that we might evaluate where we fit within the social hierarchy.
It’s no wonder that we’re obsessed with comparison, but over the past few months (even before this embarrassing yoga experience) I have noticed how it’s become an almost constant feature in my daily life. I’m driven to compare myself as a mother, as a writer, as a psychologist, as a public speaker. I compare my body to other people’s bodies (“They’re so much fitter than I am…”). I compare my IG account to other peoples IG accounts (“They have wayyy more followers than I do…”). I compare my successes to other peoples successes (“That person has published a book! I haven’t published a book!”).
There are two different types of comparisons we make, upward and downward comparisons, and while they seem like polar opposites, they both wind up enforcing a dangerous ideal – that our worthiness is something that we judge based on the achievements & aptitude of others.
Upward & Downward Comparisons
Downward comparisons, that is the kind you make involving people you consider as doing or being worse than yourself, can ignite a cheap and transient experience of euphoria in the moment (“I am so great, I’m better than you”). On the flip side, upward comparisons are the kind you make with people you consider as doing or being better than yourself, that often leave you struck with feelings of inadequacy, incompetence and failure (“I am so shit, they’re so much better than me”). Social media creates a rife and fertile ground for upward comparisons, as you’re bound to find people on social media who present themselves with lives, jobs, families and achievements that look rudely superior to your own.
Although the immediate, felt experiences following upward/downward comparisons might be different, the act of comparison itself (regardless of its direction) is a habit that reinforces the importance of visible or external factors on your sense of worthiness & success. It constantly requires looking outside of yourself for who you are and how you’re doing, and constantly requires you to scramble to “please, perform, perfect & prove” (as Brene Brown puts it) in order to establish your worthiness.
The Comparison Grasp
You can also become easily addicted to the fleeting euphoria of evaluating yourself as better than others (kind of like a nangs-style ego boost), leaving you chasing it constantly (kind of like me in that yoga class). I’ve given this a name – The Comparison Grasp. That jolt to compare is almost like me grasping for a quick feel-good fix, but the other side to it is, that, if I don’t think or feel like I’m doing better than others, I cop a gross, feel-bad blow. From there, I’ll then force myself to “please, perform, perfect & prove” to increasingly greater degrees, in an effort to grasp again for the chance of that fix. It’s an exhausting and chaotic way to live.
Can We Get Over the Compulsion to Comparison Grasp?
Well, the real talk is that we probably can’t – not completely. There will likely be a running dialogue in your mind urging you towards comparisons – more so, if you’ve found yourself entrenched in the habits of “pleasing, performing, perfecting & proving” your way to feeling worthy of love and belonging.
But what we can do is notice when these thoughts and the urge to “comparison grasp” arises. We can acknowledge that the act of constant comparisons reduces life and experience to a very narrow and rigid dichotomy – better/worse, good/bad, success/fail. And we can acknowledge that indulging in the cheap thrill of a “I’m better than you” downward-comparison leaves us at the mercy of suffering the discomfort and disappointment when we’re faced with the inevitable upward-comparison that says “You’re better than me.”
When you find yourself drawn to the urge to comparison grasp, just as I did in the yoga class that day, your best next step is to pause and take a breath. Unhook from the flurry of thoughts cascading through your mind by allowing yourself to sink back into the experience of being in your body.
You can do this in a yoga class, or while scrolling instagram, or while your kid’s having an exorcist-style meltdown. Recognise that the urge to comparison grasp is natural and human, but the result of being driven by these grasps leaves us trapped in an exhausting and unwinnable race. A race that pits us against friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, where life becomes something to win or lose. Gently guide yourself back to your own lane and be present with your experience for what it is, in that moment – something not necessarily good or bad, better or worse, but rather a gesture in the kaleidoscope of growth & experience that we call life.