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What Running Has Taught Me About Comparison

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I'm not sure what Teddy was talking about, but he could have been talking about anything. It's human nature to compare ourselves to others. Comparison is useful in a lot of ways, most tangibly, to measure our abilities for survival within a social hierarchy. There is a very famous social comparison theory dating back to the 1950's that was proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger. The theory suggests that humans look to others as a standard to measure their own abilities and self-image. However, we typically compare ourselves to people within our social circle or status, rather than those outside of it. So if someone within a similar social group outperforms us, we might feel jealous because their success triggers our insecurities by making us feel inferior and inadequate. But when someone performs worse than us in any way, it might make us feel better and *may* boost our self-esteem. It's not altogether lovely, but it is human nature.

I'm taking a temporary break from running to heal some minor overuse injuries. I haven't taken a real break in over a year, so I shouldn't be surprised that my body was kindly telling me to rest. But runners don't like resting. We like movement and adrenaline and air. And even though I had a great year running wise, I often can't help but feel like I should be doing more. Running more, because I see other people running more. Running harder, because I see other people running harder. But I am not them, and they are not me. We are all leading such exquisitely different lives and if there's one thing that running has taught me it's that there will always be someone faster. There will always be someone better. The work is not to be the best. The work is to make yourself better, incrementally, day after day. It's the getting up early and lonely long runs. It's the gradual increase in resiliency.

It's learning that the only person to compare yourself to is a past version of you.

When I started running, I barely knew other people who ran. I didn't time myself or measure my runs with any semblance of accuracy. I just liked to run. It was pure and gritty and lovely to run with no intentions, with nothing to train for. To head out the door on a humid July afternoon, in a mid-April rain, in a dark, January freeze, just....because. But the moment I started competing, I started comparing. It was inevitable. We all do. And the moment I started comparing too much is the moment I started thinking that maybe I wasn't so good at running. That maybe I needed some sort of edge. That maybe if I just lost enough weight, dropped a few pounds, then maybe I'd edge out some of my competition.

The really shortsighted thing was that my perception of who my competition was was so limited that I didn't understand my mediocrity. I was fast, sure. I still am fast, compared to a lot of people. But I don't usually think about the people I'm faster than, I just think about the people I'm behind. And I could lose my mind chasing them.

Sometimes, comparison isn't as black and white as it is in a sport like running. It's obvious and irrefutable who the faster runners are. But often in life, we compare ourselves to a perception of someone else; the smoke and mirrors of someone else's life. Those perceptions can be untrue or inflated or just simply way off base. Or, (and this is more likely), our own self perception is off. We might think we're less smart, less capable, less pretty, less whatever, than we are and thereby give others more credit than they deserve.

It's difficult to be objective, especially about oneself. But I guess my point is that even in a sport like running, where there are clear delineations in ability, where there is a clear winner and where our best race is against the clock, comparison isn't always useful. So it stands to reason that in situations that aren't so black in white, in situations where there is no clear delineation in ability, comparison will most often hurt ourselves because most of us are more critical of ourselves than of anyone else. It does almost no good to spend time, energy, and brain space playing the comparison game. So if you find yourself deep down the comparison rabbit hole, try to zoom out. Remember that none of us are objective, and that you are just as smart, just as beautiful, just as capable as you think you are.

P.S. Find the most beautiful running spot in each state here, read Farnam Street Blog's take on comparison, or watch Lana Blakely talk about how she stopped comparing herself to others here.


Sarah Rose

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