The Comparison Trap
In our most recent “More Than Miles” podcast episode, we had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kensa Gunter, a very accomplished sports psychologist. While I find every second of that conversation valuable, there was one idea that really stood out to me and made me think.
“What comparison does is it allows us to look at what someone else is doing without having the full context of why they’re doing what they’re doing, how that works for them, and then applying that to our own lives. So a lot of times we think that in our comparison we’re trying to get better, but in comparing ourselves to others we can sometimes be selling ourselves short. What if we are capable of more than what this person we’re comparing ourselves to?”
Comparison is completely normal, and I think it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t look outside themselves in order to set expectations or gain validation. It is part of how we understand ourselves and each other.
Certainly endurance sports are a perfect recipe for comparison: placing hundreds of people covered head to toe in spandex and lycra with type-A personalities on a starting line, with the goal of coming in first, and animosity is sure to ensue. Competition can bring out both the best and worst in us. In this social media and Strava driven world, the competition continues beyond the finish line. As Kensa said so eloquently, we don’t have the full context as we scroll. It actually takes conscious effort to avoid creating an elaborate story based on what we see in social media.
Something I see quite often as a Physical Therapist is an athlete or patient forming expectations about their injury recovery or their own body based on what they see in others. There is certainly some frustration that comes from watching someone who sleeps 5 hours a night, eats oreos pre-run, and doesn’t stretch or strength train, yet frequently breaks the tape in local races while staying injury-free. Or, someone with the “same” injury getting back to running in 2 weeks vs. the 4, 6, or 8 weeks of rehab they are slogging through.
We are all different. We have unique bodies, lifestyles, stress levels, physiology, genetics, neurochemical levels, physical experience, and ways of processing. We aren’t machines, and we can’t see ourselves in that way. Teddy Roosevelt was credited with the quote “Comparison is the thief of joy,” because it is literally impossible to find joy externally. It has to come from within, and that means running your own race.
Purpose plays a big role in how success is defined, reaching far beyond time or place goals. It is the why for those goals. Why, exactly, do you want to run that time, place in a race, or beat another athlete?
Personally, I had to confront this as I emerged from a long year of injuries and re-evaluated my running goals. I realized that I had a time goal that was so “important” that I pushed myself to exhaustion and physical harm, yet could not explain why that number on the clock was worth tying a knot at the end of my rope. Once I focused on simply getting the best out of my body, it was shocking to no one (okay, I might have been a little surprised) that my running improved. After all, that was why that goal was in place: because I thought it would really push my limits and would require strength physically and mentally that I’ve never had before. Carving out a deeper meaning made the process more enjoyable, adversity less daunting, and the roots of the endeavor stronger.