The Comparison Trap: On Using Different Types of Comparison to Inspire and Motivate Us

Lindsey has been running since age 11 and found trail running after moving to a house literally on a trail system right in the middle of Knoxville, TN. She is a Mom to two, supporter of an ultra running husband, licensed counselor in private practice, soccer Mom, and Barbie hair aficionado. Lindsey’s time on the trail is a stress reliever for a tough day job, especially during the last few years when so many were experiencing such loss and isolation during the pandemic. Writing has become a source of creativity and to continue developing an understanding of herself as well as a way to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

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Coffee and phone in hand, I begin my daily scroll of Instagram, past smiling children, cute puppies, and reminders to care for my mental health. I scroll past women posting about their latest runs and races. They share about the upcoming race they have in Colorado or France.  As I continue to scroll, negative thoughts start to creep in: “how did she even have time to train for that ultra? She has like 8 kids. How did she get so fast? I should look at her Strava. Wow, that running gear must have cost an arm and a leg, how can she afford that? What am I doing wrong? What’s the point of even training? I will never run that far/fast/look so good.”

I can imagine we all have struggled with these thoughts. They push us into a dangerous spiral which can challenge our sense of self, who we think we are and what we are capable of in life/running/motherhood. We think to ourselves that we must be doing something wrong or that we are not doing enough. The comparison hits our self-esteem and we put our phone down feeling worse than when we picked it up. These thoughts can be debilitating and derail us and our training completely.

Social comparison has been around practically forever – it is a natural human dynamic. While those before us did not have immediate access to the internet to see what their friends were up to, they too compared themselves to others to evaluate how they were doing in life. We start comparing ourselves to others as early as toddler age and once it starts, there is a struggle to stop.

What if social comparison could benefit us in some way? What if shifting perspective on this comparison game could allow us to experience gratitude and inspiration and maybe even a bit of motivation? What if there was a way to reframe this experience so we could be more hopeful? Social Psychologists have found that comparison can be used two ways to elevate us: upward and downward comparison. Upward comparison is using others we believe are better than us to inspire and motivate us. Downward comparison is when we use others who are less fortunate, even worse off than us, to help us feel better about how we are doing.

For the past few months, I have been training for my second ultra-marathon. Training has felt hard and at moments almost impossible. My time to dedicate to train is so limited. I have two kids, run a small business, and support my husband while he trains for ultras as well. I see other moms and professionals hitting these fast times and tackling so many miles a week. I can’t help but think – what kind of time do they have that I don’t? When I found that logging onto Instagram left me feeling sad and defeated and almost throwing in the towel to train, I decided that I had to find a reframe: instead of feeling disappointed that I am not hitting those times or miles, how can I use them as sources of inspiration and motivation? Maybe there is something they can offer me in all the hard work that they have done over the years to get where they are. I also had to pause and acknowledge how we are different. They may have different resources and privilege available to them. Some of these women run for a living and can solely focus on training through the support of a coach or a team. I decided to use these women who I see as more accomplished and successful to move my thoughts upward – to remember that they too had to start from scratch and build miles and find pockets of time in their schedules to get a run done. I have just not gotten there…yet.

I get it. It can be hard to find that shift in mindset; some days it helps and some days it feels impossible to see your friend running 10 miles every day knowing she has a full-time job and 2 kids. Oftentimes, my ability to shift into an upward comparison depends on how I am feeling about myself that day. If I find that myself esteem is low and I am not in a place to see the successes of other women as helpful, I remember that I can try and focus on what a privilege it is to run at all – I use downward comparison. I remember that there are folks struggling significantly more than me with their health and well-being. I have found something that I love doing almost every day while many of my friends are still trying to figure out how they enjoy moving their body. How amazing is it that I have found through trail running that I am more connected to my body, my highest self, and nature. There are so many women out there who will never even have the chance or energy to train and run on a trail. Others may never feel safe to go out into the woods alone. Trail running, this thing I am grumbling about doing – it is a privilege.

Comparing ourselves to others has long been a process we should try and refrain from but if we can learn ways to maximize this thinking then maybe that Instagram scroll can start to be an inspiring and humbling way to get your feet out the door and onto the trails. I know I will never be as fast as Courtney Dauwalter or Sally McRae but watching their interviews and listening to podcasts can get me pumped for my next race. I can steal every nugget of wisdom they offer. It is a privilege to walk out the door in my running shoes and hit the trails without a second thought.

About the Author

Lindsey has been running since age 11 and found trail running after moving to a house literally on a trail system right in the middle of Knoxville, TN. She is a Mom to two, supporter of an ultra running husband, licensed counselor in private practice, soccer Mom, and Barbie hair aficionado. Lindsey’s time on the trail is a stress reliever for a tough day job, especially during the last few years when so many were experiencing such loss and isolation during the pandemic. Writing has become a source of creativity and to continue developing an understanding of herself as well as a way to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

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