Comparison culture: Learning to resist in an age of optimisation

Words by Emma McCormack

As the saying goes ‘comparison breeds discontent’ and never has this been more relevant, in an age where we can compare every aspect of our being to almost the entire planet, just by logging in. 

Moving away from the narrative that you have to do everything with a sense of immediacy is hard. It’s everywhere we look. Successful people supposedly seize the day, they roll out of bed seamlessly to sip on their chai lattes, which typically precedes a gruelling high-intensity exercise and meditation routine. Chakras are aligned before a 12-hour working day can commence. Naturally, to achieve all of this, the day must begin at 5am.

But, fuck does it.

Reality. One simple little word, but one that’s crucial in such trying times.

A deep breath and a strong daily dose of reality. Screw your chai this time. It’s not healthy, and a lot of the broadcasting of this behaviour leads to more bad than good. It’s just another way to facilitate comparison seeping in, and with that comes destruction. 

Who can possibly say that Steve Jobs’ 5am starts were to thank for his success? Who knows what role they truly played? No-one. Yet it’s still a topic that we engage with. Not all rituals are good and they’re certainly not one-size-fits-all.

Conversations on and searches for imposter syndrome have seen a dramatic increase, and it’s this feeling of self doubt that’s fuelling the fire. Imposter syndrome isn’t new, having first been identified in the late 70s, but the upswing of the phrase’s use is indicative of a general sentiment of comparative inadequacy.

For me, this shift starts with being fed a curated view of other people’s lives. Of course, we’re not going to always post about the shit day we’ve had, the acne outbreak that’s jeopardising a big event or a confronting health scare, but there is a level of authenticity that’s needed — especially for influential public figures. 

We’re at a point where our self-judgement has become ingrained in our day-to-day lives. That ‘Why am I not doing more?’ or ‘Why can’t I squeeze daily CrossFit classes around my demanding job?’ voice monotonously rings in our heads. We all beat ourselves up over different personal ‘failings’, often forgetting to give personal failures any air time in our public discourse — we only share it with the world on social media if we do make it to the 6am CrossFit session.

It’s dangerous and damaging. We’re all striving for an unattainable (and non-existent) level of perfection, which brings with it anxiety, depression and OCD.

Women are carrying the weight of this. Internalised bias breeds these feelings of self doubt and an unrelenting pressure to better ourselves, which is further compounded when competing with men. This is true of many workplaces, but also of the current cultural climate.

Women are constantly being compared to young supermodels, yet the standards for men seem to be so much lower. If you’re a greying man with a slight beer bulge you’re a ‘silver fox’, but terms like ‘old hag’ and ‘mutton’ are thrown around about any woman past her societally constructed ‘peak’. The Times’ superfit fifties list last week saw J-Lo and Jennifer Anniston brush their shoulders with the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg. Where is the justice?

We need to change the discourse, for women and for men. We need to stop praising people for cramming every bit of their day with activity, or for skipping lunch in favour of a ‘cleanse’. We need to stand up and say no when it feels right to. We need to spend our time doing what makes us happy and healthy, not aspiring to all the carpe diem LinkedIn spiel that’s consuming our feeds.    

We may think bettering ourselves is key and that we’re inspired or motivated by the materials we’re reading, but there’s more to it than that. Self-optimisation could actually be the antithesis to its name, and it could be causing more bad than good. It can lead to a mentality that encourages self-doubt at every corner. It’s an unachievable ideal, but we’re still all aspiring to be that crème de la crème. 

I, for one, am exhausted.

Stand down and step away from posts, people and things that make you feel inferior or unworthy. Reflect on everything you’re doing well and the progress you’re making, not the strides anyone else is taking to the top. At the end of the day your only competition is you, not that supermodel come scientist come yoga teacher who’s documenting her journey, but humble little you. I bet you’re better than you think.

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