Episode 51: The curse of comparison

November 3, 2014

“It’s taboo to talk about who we envy, it’s taboo to talk about the fact that we do it, and it sort of doubles down on the internal blocks.”           - Lauren Bacon

"We understand that intrinsically it doesn't feel healthy...comparing yourself, feeling small, 'Why does she get to have what I don't have?'"   - Tanya Geisler

18 minutes.

Who hasn't compared herself to someone else at work, envying the relationship that person has with the boss, or the attention they get for their work? Then there's the other side of comparison - boosting your ego by assuring yourself you're better than that woman down the hall. Later we feel horrible for indulging in all this envy and disdain in the first place.

The comparisons we make at work can hold us back in our careers, whether we work for a company or for ourselves. In this show Canadian leadership coaches Lauren Bacon and Tanya Geisler explain how we can tame our urge to compare and turn it into something much more constructive.

Tanya Geisler (l) and Lauren Bacon (r)

Further reading/viewing: Lauren and Tanya's online program is at BeyondCompare.ca

Tanya spoke about impostor syndrome at a TEDx event last year.

Here's Lauren's piece on comparison at work from Quartz that I referenced during the show.

Her post Escaping the Comparison Loop is another good read. 



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, the curse of comparison at work…

“It’s taboo to talk about who we envy, it’s taboo to talk about the fact that we do it, and it sort of doubles down on the internal blocks.”

Blocks that can stop us from trying something new…

“Who am I to create X, Y and Z when that person’s already done it. They’ve already written the book that I wanted to write. What’s the point? So I won’t bother.”

Coming up – changing our relationship with comparison.

Now if you’re female chances are you’re well acquainted with a negative voice in your head. You know, it pops up at various times to ask who on earth you think you are to ask for more money, to criticize your appearance, or to tell you your colleague is getting the attention you deserve.

We all compare ourselves to other people. It’s human. But the effects can be quite detrimental to our progress whether we work for a company or for ourselves. 

Lauren Bacon and Tanya Geisler are a couple of Canadian leadership coaches who wanted to look more closely at our urge to compare. Not just look at it, but offer a way for us to re-frame our whole relationship with comparison. To change it from something that can be destructive to something more constructive.

Lauren co-owned and ran her own business for 12 years before she began writing and coaching creative types. She’s based in Vancouver. We spoke on Skype. Earlier this Autumn she published a piece about how to stop comparing yourself to other people at work.

AM-T: “I’m quoting here from that piece you wrote in Quartz, which I really enjoyed. You say ‘comparison is an unconscious habit that can distort our view of ourselves or others.’ What do you mean by that?”

“Well what I noticed about comparison is that I’d been doing it for years and years without actually noticing it, without actually paying attention to what the mental process was. So how it would show up was as an unconscious sorting of people who were like me or not like me. People who I felt like I was doing better than or who were doing better than me. And there’s nothing inherently wrong about that except I think that, it’s very natural for us to try to sort and compartmentalize and organize things into categories, that’s part of what we do as human creatures. But where it gets troublesome is when we start labeling and judging other people and ourselves. And so what I noticed about comparison was that I would catch myself in the process of comparing up, that is looking to other people for inspiration, but then finding that I might be putting them on pedestal, or finding I might be looking at them as superhuman in some way and looking at the qualities that they embodied as sort of out of reach for me. Or I could be looking down and judging those people harshly and using it as a way to kind of boost up my ego and feel better than someone else.”

Like most of us, she’s made these kinds of comparisons quite a lot during her career. Before she owned her own company she had a boss she didn’t much like. What really made her skin crawl was his avid self-promotion. He lost no opportunity to talk himself up and to take credit for something when he didn’t deserve to. She lost no opportunity to feel disgusted – and superior – and to tell herself she would never stoop so low. Then she became a business owner. And that guy’s behavior continued to haunt her in her life as an entrepreneur.

“What it did to me internally was it got me to a place where I just refused to replicate any behavior that remotely smacked of that. So where he might take more credit than was due, I would take less credit was due in reaction to that sort of overbearing persona.”

But she eventually realized her business was suffering. Where her ex-boss had gone big on hiring and fast growth, she wouldn’t hire help even though she desperately needed it. Where he was a one-man marketing machine, she barely did any marketing or talked about her successes.

“Now there’s an icky way to be self-promotional and there’s a confident and assertive way to be self-promotional. And I had a tendency because I think as woman in part and as a person I’d been raised to kind of feel like it was more important for the collective to share credit or it was important to be humble and to fit in and not stand out too much, that I hadn’t really learned the skill of artful self promotion, so labeling it as wrong or as bad or as gross was a much easier way out than to actually learn the skill of self-promotion in a way that felt good and aligned with my values.”

She says thrusting all that negativity onto that boss was actually really lazy – it meant she could avoid looking at herself and the stuff she might actually be lacking as a businessperson.

AM-T: “The story you just told about your former boss and the fact that behavior stayed with you for such a long time, to me that reads to me as more benign than the kind of comparison I’ve done and I know other people do where it’s this weird mixture of feelings of there is admiration in there, there’s envy, there’s frankly dislike…there’s a whole bunch of things…but that’s the kind of comparison I’m more familiar with from my own life and when I talk to friends about their own kind of comparison situations at work.”

“Absolutely, I’ve heard that a lot too. And I think envy is one of those things that...another part of it that gets really tricky is there is a way in which it is totally taboo to talk about. It’s taboo to talk about who we envy, it’s taboo to talk about the fact that we do it, and it sort of doubles down on the internal blocks because we – not only are we blocking ourselves from embodying whatever those qualities are but we’re also judging ourselves so harshly for doing it. We don’t even want to admit it to ourselves, let alone to others. So we fail to delve into it because it just feels so vulnerable to gross to look it squarely in the eye.

But envy is such an incredibly educational experience because as soon as we catch ourselves envying someone, it is an opportunity to ask ourselves what is it about this person...like what are the qualities in this person that I am envying and where am I not giving myself permission to explore those qualities, to embody those qualities, to give myself credit for the places where I am doing those things. So there are so many ways we can learn from envy. I mean I’ll give you an example from my own life. One of the places that a lot of us envy is around financial stuff, and I have certainly done that a lot. To look at people who are earning more money than I make and who are seemingly experiencing that with enormous ease, and with great good fortune, and especially it comes up when they’re doing something that is similar to me, people who are in the writing and coaching space, and so I see someone having a really successful launch, and I think oh, what’s it going to take for me to have a really successful launch like them?”

We’ll come back to that topic of doing the most comparison with people you have things in common with, because I am far from immune to it.

When I spoke to Lauren’s fellow coach Tanya Geisler I wanted to know if this compulsion to compare affects men as much as women…

“The way that they’re raised is that, it’s OK to screw up but just don’t get caught. So don’t talk about it. Don’t talk about it. So I think that’s a huge piece. I think there’s so much more shame, from the men that I have worked with it is near impossible. Like, to get to that point where they will really come clean  with the comparison that they do do, that’s the work. Once they get to that it’s smooth sailing. Whereas with women it’s like, this is where I show up – I recognize this has been an impediment to my growth and my success, I really need to transform this and I need to transform it now.”

And when female clients talk about this stuff they’re different from guys in another way. Lauren alluded to this a bit earlier, and Tanya sees it too: women beat themselves up about all the comparing they do.

“Because we actually understand that intrinsically it doesn’t feel healthy, it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel good, when we’re sitting in this sort of smallish place. If you can imagine the energy of your body when you’re like – I’m sort of scrunching up my nose right now – comparing yourself, feeling small, why does she get what I don’t have, or the opposite, we feel this disdain, this comparing down type of quality.”

AM-T: “I’m better than they are.”

“Yeah, I’m better than they are. So it feels kind of good for a little bit, it feels like I win. But we understand this is not our set point, this is not where we are supposed to be so we berate ourselves. So we are very hard on ourselves for comparing in the first place. So I want to be really clear, this work Lauren and I are doing is not about not comparing, it’s about bringing some consciousness and awareness and recognition to what’s going on so we can transform it into a relationship that feels a lot more aligned with who we are.”

She says one of the worst things about comparison is how it can de-rail people. She’s spoken to countless women who had an idea for a project of some kind, anything from a company to a simple blog post, and then they realize someone else is already on it. They immediately start to doubt themselves.

“Who am I to create X, Y and Z when that person’s already done it. They’ve already written the book I wanted to write. What’s the point? So I won’t bother. My voice isn’t important enough. It’s too late. I’d best shift gears and go into something entirely different.”

But just because someone is writing a book about that topic doesn’t mean you can’t write YOUR book. Lauren writes a lot and she told me some of her most successful pieces have been on topics that have already been covered extensively. Yet to her surprise it was those posts that were shared hundreds of times. Both women look at this urge to drop an idea because of the competition as sort of shirking our responsibility to put our own stamp on things.

Now women are inundated with comparison points – often in the form of glossy magazines and celebrity-packed TV-shows, the Real Housewives, and perhaps especially parenting groups. And then there’s social media, which neither sex is immune to. First, if you’re on Twitter, there’s the inevitable number of followers comparison. And then people tend to share their triumphs. Which Tanya says has an insidious effect on our psyches…

“So we’re seeing the best, we’re seeing the best of everybody that they’re putting out there, we have a lot of beliefs about the ease with which they got where they got and we compare it to our trials, our tribulations, this comparing our insides to others’ outsides. Another way we always talk about blooper reel versus highlight reel. We only see our blooper reel. So we don’t know what someone else has actually gone through, what they have sacrificed, what they have decided, what they’ve said yes to or no to to get where they are, to get that opportunity, raise, promotion. So we make it up.”

We invent a narrative to suit our own ideas of who that person is. Soon we’re telling ourselves they’re the luckiest person on earth, and we have fate stacked against us.

“Obviously comparison, it can be really stuck, it’s a really sort of stuck place. So the next time you catch yourselves – and this is for the listeners right here – as they’re listening to you and the success you’ve had in your work, or they’re listening to me and they’re feeling some sort of I’ve always wanted this and why can’t I have that, if there’s anything like that going on, recognize that for what it is, there’s a bit of admiration, the gifts we’ve been given or have made happen, and look to what qualities you might admire in that person that in that moment inspire me.”

Again, she says, try to work out how you can take some of them on yourself.

Now of course I can’t imagine anyone envying me…because I’m too busy envying other people: namely, podcasters from my same world of public radio with a much bigger platform than I have. Podcasters who get to advertise their shows on the radio, podcasters who have connections to radio gods who give them an on-air blessing – from these opportunities tens of thousands or more listeners can result. I admire these people a lot. But I can’t pretend I don’t compare myself with them, or that I’m not envious of the platforms they have to let everyone know about their work.

Lauren says look, you can’t always replicate the same results of the people you envy. Which of course is terribly disappointing. But don’t focus on those other people or you’ll lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve yourself.

Also, she says, think twice when you envy a colleague at work – say, someone who seems to have the ear and the favor of a higher-up you can’t seem to engage. Ask what kinds of qualities they have that are getting them that attention. Are they even qualities that matter to you?

“Or are they simply enviable because they’re valuable to other people…to the people in power? And if the answer is the latter, then I would work really hard to release it, to just let it go. To bless them and let them on their way, because if it’s not something you want for its own merit and for yourself, then in the long run it’s not going to serve you. In the long run, it’s really more about how do you align yourself with the people who share your values and who see things the way that you do and perhaps rise to the top in different ways.”

She wants people to find success on their own terms.

Lauren says when it comes to the women she coaches, she doesn’t just see traditional comparison woes.

“What I see with a lot of people is actually the flipside of comparison…when you’re on the receiving end of other people’s comparison. So when people are putting you on a pedestal or people are judging you. And especially the fear of that, the fear of that holds so many people back, and especially women, because we’re raised to really care so much about what other people think and to pay so much attention to that.”

She says the desire to dodge criticism is so powerful and the urge to seek praise so strong in women…a lot of us want to avoid criticism at all cost because it’s so uncomfortable. But doing that means you don’t take risks – and avoiding risk means you limit your chance to grow.

And finally Lauren mentioned something I’d heard before but was rather skeptical about – this idea that women are afraid of success and what it might bring. Lauren says plenty of her female clients are living with this fear…

“…actively avoiding that kind of mass adulation that comes with big success. Right? As much as they’re trying to avoid lots of criticism they could actually just be avoiding those huge expectations that can come with high visibility. If you put yourself out there as a leader, it could be as an entrepreneur, it could be as a leader in your workplace, it could be you know, writing that memoir you’ve always wanted to write, whatever it is, getting scared of the persona people are going to push on to you, getting anxious about the niche they’re going to try to slot you into is a really big one for a lot of women and I see it holding a lot of us back.”

Again it comes back to what other people think of us.

If you’d like to change your own relationship with comparison you can check out Lauren and Tanya’s online program at BeyondCompare.ca – I’ll also post a link under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. If you have a comment on the show please post it there or on the show’s Facebook page. Or you can email me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com. If you’d like to hear something covered on the show, let me know.

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That’s the show for this time.

Thanks again to April Laissle for her help putting this episode together.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.