Don’t Compare Your Inside to Someone Else’s Outside

By Michael Gakuran | | Journal | 15 Comments |

There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been said before. But, sometimes, it serves us well to be reminded of adages which embiggen and embolden us. While perhaps not the most eloquent way of putting it, the phrase ‘Don’t Compare Your Inside to Someone Else’s Outside’ caught my attention browsing one Hacker News comment thread recently. It aptly sums up some of the things I’ve been feeling and writing about in recent months, particularly Oh Dear! I Shall Be Too Late! and the follow-up I Took the Road Less Traveled By.

finding-oneself

Image: Businessman, Shutterstock

A brief excerpt from my post:

Over the past few months (or perhaps years), I’ve increasingly become aware of my tendency to become fixated on people in other professions. Very often when watching videos (TED talks are great examples), reading books (lately entrepreneurial titles), meeting friends (recently the Tofugu team) and hanging out at networking events (Business in Japan, First Step Up – etc), I find myself drawn into the other person’s world. I find myself utterly captivated by who they are and what they do. What makes them successful in their niche and what gives them their driving force to get up in the morning and go out to do great things.

Why can’t I be like them? I wonder. What I couldn’t do if I had those skills and experience!

And then shortly after the highs gained from the buzz of interaction have lessened, I sink back down to overwhelming reality to ponder my own existence. I feel the same as I did 7 years ago, right on the verge of entering university. The same ideals and lofty aspirations. The same drive to do something great and live life to the fullest. And yet here I am, 7 years later, with a degree and several years work experience, a semi-successful website and a collection of amazing explorations and experiences under my belt. But my direction is still unclear.

Although I mention several networking events and other meetings I had that led me to feel disheartened, another quite frequent source of these unpleasant feelings was non other than everyone’s favourite social media platform, Facebook. I’m by no means a heavy user, but on most days I do log in and check what my friends and family are up to, browsing the live feed combining everyone’s happy status updates. Almost without fail, I would end up leaving the website with a bruised ego; more concerned at the state of my life than happy for my friend’s successes. I was well aware of this pattern and, aiming to avoid the feelings, kept telling myself that I had more important things I needed to be working on. But try as I did, the compulsion to check-in for a short break was too strong, and I inevitably continued to let myself suffer.

flourishing-life

Image: Ray of light, Shutterstock

So it wasn’t until I read this line about one’s messy insides and other people’s glorious outsides that it really twigged what was happening. Despite receiving lots of fantastic advice from friends on the internet in response to my outpouring of self-doubt, the perfect lives and successes of those around me kept nipping at my legs, constantly reminding me that I wasn’t living the full and fruitful life that I should have been. But it’s all an illusion, brought on by the human tendency to see other people more favourably than we do ourself.

Don’t Compare Your Inside to Someone Else’s Outside!


We have direct knowledge of our own thoughts and feelings and a catalogue of life experiences that leave memories imprinted on our soul. Even if we don’t know how to interpret these things correctly or explain them to others, we have an intrinsic understanding of our own inner self because it is intrinsically a part of us an individual, living human being. Something that is never fully able to be shared with others. We intimately know our own failures, worries, doubts and fears, but we rarely show these to the outside world.

inner-self

Image: Inner self, Shutterstock

In contrast however, in order to understand the inner self of others, we must rely on stories and appearances to form our perceptions. Even if shared directly with us by the person themselves, the translation of these feelings, memories and experiences through language and behaviour and the consequent interpretation as we receive them through our senses causes something to be lost. No longer is our understanding based on direct access to the sensations that give rise to a person’s inner self, but instead a frail ghost, incomplete as the result of many things lost in translation.

Add to that the human social norm to outwardly show ourselves flourishing, and suddenly our perceptions of those around us end up quite removed from the true reality they experience. We don’t see the inner fears and doubts of strangers, or even of those close to us in many cases, but rationally we know these unpleasant emotions are hiding somewhere inside. Often we are reminded of this truth when having heartfelt exchanges with friends and family, or when calamity befalls someone nearby and they become physically or mentally sick. In cases like these, the veil falls and their fragile humanity comes pouring out. The successful reporter worrying about her reputation. The professor dreading the peer review of his research paper. The working mum battling to raise moody teenagers. The couple who just fought. The CEO struggling to maintain composure in front of a board of stockholders. Why is it then that despite being able to arrive at this rational conclusion, and we know a life is never free or imperfections, that we always seem to forget it..?

As a brief interlude, I’m reminded of the lyrics from Message in a Bottle by Sting. An especially beautiful verse that helps remind us that we’re not as alone as we may sometimes think.

Walked out this morning, I don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore.
Seems I’m not alone in being alone.
A hundred billion castaways looking for a home.

Of course, this all seems rather obvious in retrospect – nothing that you couldn’t pick up from a cheap self-help book anyway. Perhaps it was the crude wording in the line that really drove the message home this time. I tend to like rather wise and wordy quotations from philosophers of old, but there’s no mistaking that some of the original depth to cleverly-worded messages can be lost in modern society. It needed the context of Likes and status updates to really deliver its message.

And yet I wonder – how did people fare before the advent of the internet and social networks? Before the time in our history where at the click of a button you could see real time updates from people’s lives scattered all around the world. How did our ancestors judge their own self worth, and what, in turn, caused them to experience the same feelings of self-doubt? It’s certainly not an exclusively modern phenomenon, but perhaps it’s exacerbated by modern technology. Is it the case that the less people you have to compare yourself to, the less your self worth is challenged? Is the hermit at peace because he’s alone, or because he does not willingly compare himself to others..?

Hmm…

I’ll wrap up this journal entry here. So – don’t make the mistake of comparing your own reality to the appearances of others. Don’t measure yourself on the successes of those around you. I couldn’t find a similar historical quote that captures exactly the same essence as today’s adage, but if you know of one, let me know! And, if you’re feeling up to it, why not try removing your veil and letting me hear of your own worries and concerns?

15 comments on “Don’t Compare Your Inside to Someone Else’s Outside
  1. Lucie says:

    How good it feels to read u all this morning..I have been and still compare myself to others constantly,,I didn’t t know that I could be happy with what I have and not just want what u have. There is achievement in just taking the next right choice over and over….so for now I don t want to be better than I just want to be my own best!,,,

  2. Steve says:

    Hi there – my first time here – a friend recommended you and she was right – this is absolutely to the point for me at the moment.

    There does seem to be this inescapable imbalance though doesn’t there.
    Like you say, you know yourself so well, but the other person’s inner life, for the most part, is a blank. You can infer all you like but you can never actually know.

    Also there are different sorts of trauma. I know almost everyone has terrible things happen to them once in a while – bereavements, long illnesses, bad accidents – producing ‘understandable’ psychological scars, but what about the intrinsic weaknesses and failings we carry about all our lives – that colour everything we do – that turn every glitch into yet another example of a more general failure and every success into a fluke? My rational mind tells me that others must have these too (and a few people I know very obviously do) but to be honest I can’t be sure. So it’s a sort of empty hypothesis. I don’t know what to do with it.

  3. Faye Vitan says:

    Hi!

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels inadequate after browsing Facebook. I’m usually happy with my life until I’d log in on FB and see how fantastic other people’s lives are. Worse, the more I’m envious of somebody’s life, the more I follow him. (Talk about self-harm!)I finally decided to stop this madness by minimizing my FB usage to 1-2 hours a week. I’m glad, I did. I feel saner. Though I still struggle with questions on personal worth from time to time, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

  4. I read your other heart-felt journal entries, and remember responding that I felt much the same as you do, and feel that I am in a very similar place in my life. There are some great responses on those other entries, and I do need to find the time to read them (I’ve been slow doing it, mainly because my eyes have a difficult time reading light text on a dark background–nothing against your site design, I really do love it, and I have seen sites that are far harsher on my eyes than yours. I just have incredibly sensitive eyes!)

    Anyhow, I agree with your analysis. I really do believe we are our own worst critics, and there is so much that goes on in each of our souls, that only we are privy to. More than anything, I understand the difficulty in bearing that soul to the world, the difficulty in getting that complexity of experience onto paper or onto the screen. I write fiction, and I write and edit technical work for a living. Not only do I have to express my own inner world, but the inner worlds of other characters. And we all have our finely-honed doubts and worries, things that only matter to us but things that we believe matter to the outside world, as well. Currently, it is hard for me–as a writer, I don’t have many people, if anyone, reading what I write (my Web site is the worst of it, but I justified that as a place where I can keep writing and practicing, even if no one ever reads it. Yet the doubts and worries remain to some degree).

    I’ve often fallen into the trap of comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. I see people who are accomplished in their field, and agonize over ever being able to rise to their level. I often feel very inadequate. I feel even worse, at times, because other people keep telling me I’m very intelligent, that I’ve done things in my education that most people weren’t able to accomplish until years later. Do I feel smart? No, but then I have to wonder, did the great geniuses feel smart? Many didn’t. I have to believe that many of them felt just as inadequate at times as I do.

    I think these worries and depressing thoughts do begin to ease, at least a little, when you step outside of yourself and try to put yourself in another person’s shoes. More than we might realize, other people go through the very same inner turmoil that we do, and it’s possible that this same inner turmoil blinds us to our own accomplishments. Others can see what we’ve done with clarity. So part of getting through these awful feelings is to imagine someone else’s turmoil, and imagine them seeing the great things you’ve done with clarity–and trust that they really are seeing them, even if you can’t.

    Beyond that, if you can see your turmoil as something that isn’t as unique as you thought, and imagine someone else going through the same struggles you did, and if you can realize that the other person might simply be further up the trail than you are–perhaps you can accept that you will catch up to them someday, so long as you stick to that trail and keep moving forward.

    That’s my philosophical blathering.

    • Also, I have heard other writers say that if you start comparing your writing to others’, you’ll kill what made you want to write in the first place. Sometimes I think you really do have to focus on yourself for a while and trust that you do have ability and can reach the goals that matter to you, instead of trying to reach someone else’s goals.

      • Thanks for the great comments! (Sorry about the difficulty reading – evidently I still have some work to do to get the balance right!)

        As an aspiring writer myself I understand your feelings very well. The constant battle to remind oneself you write because you love to write, and the oddly empty feeling of an uncommented piece of work slowly fading into the archives of the website. Comparing your writing itself to other’s is an even trickier to balance. On the one hand the general consensus seems to be that writers improve by reading other people’s work (and thus comparing and improving on their own), but at the same time you’re correct to point out the problems that arise from too much comparison, such as the loss of motivation and originality.

        I fully agree that constantly refreshing your memory about the inherent struggles other people must face is paramount to maintaining composure. Eventually I’d like to hope that this process becomes second-nature – unconscious and unburdening to the flow of our everyday, but perhaps at the start a conscious effort is required to force ourselves to remember. If I could add something to your analogy at the end, I think it’s worthwhile thinking that there are many trails leading to many destinations. We may be walking down the same trail as others, in which case there will always be people in front of and behind you. Equally however, carving our own trail is a perfectly good way to live and if anything far more courageous in that we don’t quite know how it will turn out. After all, few to no people may have tread there before! The great analogy by Alan Watts that ‘Life is a Dance’ comes to mind here. If you haven’t seen the video, I recommend you watch it :).

        • Excellent thoughts, Michael! I think you’re very right–that it is a conscious effort at first to remember the struggles that everyone must deal with, not just yourself, but, like you, I do hope it will get easier to remember them and to focus on your own path, and not on someone else’s. There’s also definitely a balance to be struck between reading someone else’s work in order to improve your own, and letting yourself get dragged down by feelings of inadequacy from too much or unfocused comparison.

          And I know exactly what you mean by watching work fade into the archives without comment… but you know? I went through a similar process while submitting fiction to magazines. It took quite a few form rejections (20-30), making me wonder if the editor even read the piece before throwing it out, before someone said “Yes!” I want to believe that persistence is key, in fiction as well as blogging. Maybe some courage, too.

          It’s a lot to think about, but it’s certainly worthwhile. I think each person will work it out in their own way. It certainly helps to share one’s thoughts, though!

          And please, your site design is lovely–there’s no reason to change it for someone as “unique” as me :) I enjoy everything you write and shoot, as well as the commentary, so it’s worth it!!

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately & know a lot of my stress is caused by the blogs that I read and Pinterest. As a mom it feels like everyone else out there has a pristine & well decorated house, wonderful children, great hair & clothes, cooks fabulous meals, comes up with fun activities to do with the kids, does elaborate holiday celebrations, has an active social life, etc. Meanwhile I’m struggling just to keep up with the laundry & dishes!

    In reality I *know* that each of these people are probably really good at a couple things on the list, not everything (just like me). And most probably aren’t dealing with a 3 year old and a newborn right now either. But the blogs kind of get merged together in your head and you feel like everyone has their act together except for you. I love that they inspire me to keep creating & doing wonderful things & don’t want to give that up, but have trouble dealing with the stress that comes from not being able to do everything perfectly.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think this is a great example of the problem I was talking about! I was mainly focused on success in work and pursuit of personal pleasure, but you’re quite correct to note that these destructive comparisons and self-criticism happen in many different areas of life. From my perspective though, your raising two children and working to make their lives happy is something altruistic and admirable. It is difficult for me to imagine being able to do that myself right now, although someday I’m sure the right time will come. Still, by realising that there are areas you could improve upon, you will undoubtedly keeping improving until you become the object of somebody else’s inspiration…or envy! Just don’t undervalue the good work you’re already doing :).

  6. Mark Twain once said that “Comparison is the death of joy.” It’s something that should be remembered. :)

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