It was the nicest house I’d ever lived in. And it was all ours!
When the realtor gave us the keys, I stood in the living room with a bucket of cleaning supplies in one hand, taking in the high ceiling, fireplace, and gorgeous wood floors.
As I dusted and polished the floors to a shine, I thought about some of the places I’d lived—a rusted out double-wide with peeling linoleum. An attic room with no heat or air conditioning. A one-bedroom apartment for three people. How wonderful to live in such a beautiful place!
I overflowed with thankfulness for three bedrooms and a bonus—and three bathrooms. (Oh, the bliss of so much bathroom space with teenage girls.)
Until gradually, as I got bored taking my walks in our subdivision, I ventured across the highway.
Those houses were giant. And made of all brick, not just brick on the front with metal siding on the rest, like the houses in my neighborhood. The fences were not plain wooden fences, but wrought-iron black fences. One of the houses on my new route even had a sunporch on the back.
If only we could have one of those houses…like maybe the one with the sunporch.
You already know what I’m going to say next. If I’d have gotten my wish, I would have seen an even more amazing house—perhaps one with an indoor theater or a hot tub. Preferably near a white sandy beach. And my discontent would never end, no matter how big or beautiful my house was.
Because I’d always be comparing my possessions to someone else’s.
And then there’s the tendency to look at someone else judgmentally and be proud that you’ve done better. Just the other day in the grocery store, I caught myself thinking, “At least my kids didn’t run around screaming like that.”
Who was I to judge? How do I know what that mama faces every day or the battles she fights? But there I was, even knowing that not every misbehaved child is a result of poor parenting, comparing my parenting to hers. (Easy to do when you’re an empty nester and have forgotten the fatigue and daily challenges that often shift parents into survival mode.)
We don’t often voice our comparisons aloud. In fact, the phrase “silently judging” has become a cliché.
That tells me that even while we’re doing it, we know it’s wrong. Maybe it temporarily makes us feel good, but in the long run, comparisons suck the joy right out of us.
So why do we do it?
Whether discontentment (wanting something better) or pride (thinking of yourself or your possessions as better than), I think comparison comes from forgetting that God created each of us as unique beings in His image for the purpose only we can fill in life.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your circumstances. It’s important to strive for better health, financial security, parenting skills, career success, and healthier relationships.
But when our motives come from jealousy or envy, that striving becomes toxic. We may be improving one or more aspects of our lives, but our spiritual condition deteriorates.
The same holds true for judgmentally comparing ourselves to others. We may feel good about it in the moment, but those toxic thoughts leave us with less compassion and shrinks our desire to bless those less fortunate.
At the root of the comparison trap is a feeling that we are “less than” or “not good enough” in some way, so we make ourselves feel better by looking down on others we perceive as worse off. Or we channel our energies into wishing we were better off.
Either way, comparison depletes our joy and saps our energy—energy we could be putting into living like the created-for-a-purpose beings we are.
So how do we avoid it?
Before I go on, I’ve got to tell you that I’m writing this one just as much for me as for you. In the other two posts in the Joy Suckers series on work and dealing with negative people, I feel like I’ve learned a lot and had great advice based on what’s already worked for me.
But this topic? Well, let’s just say I’ve got a long way to go. The only reason I’m thinking and writing about it is so that I can formulate a plan to get out of the trap. (If you have great insight, please feel free to add to this list in the comments!) This is a list of things for me to try–if it helps you too, great!
How to Avoid the Comparison Trap
1) Memorize and meditate on Psalm 139:13-14. Write these verses on a sticky note or 3×5 card, and put it where you’ll read it every day. Scripture Typer is a wonderful Bible memory app that helps with memory and provides a systematic review system.
2) Whenever you’re casting judgmental comparisons of someone else, journal about what ways you’re feeling “less than” to get at the root of why you need a temporary way to feel better about yourself.
3) Whenever you’re comparing yourself negatively to others, write a journal entry about all the things you’re grateful for. Focusing on our blessings rather than what we don’t have overcomes envy and jealousy with joy.
4) It’s a fine line between admiring someone’s strength, talent, or other attributes to learn from them to achieve your own success and being grumpy that you don’t have something others do. Whenever you feel like you’re starting to cross that line, meditate on the verse from step one: God created you with your own strengths and talents, and He allows hard circumstances to grow us.
5) Remember that the grass is not always greener. I have a friend with a glorious house and by all outward appearances they live a glamorous life. But she has a son with an incurable disease. Many boys she’s known have already died from it. If we were to know some of the struggles the people we compare ourselves with, we wouldn’t trade places with them for anything in the world.
6) Replace judgmental comparison with compassion. For instance, the other day, instead of thinking grumpy thoughts about the mom in the supermarket and avoiding the aisle she was in, I could have smiled at her and maybe even offered a word of encouragement. We’re blessed to be a blessing: whether that’s giving a smile to a haggard mom in the grocery store, or serving lunch in a homeless shelter, or praying for success for that author who got the book contract (instead of you).
Comparison is the opposite of fellowship. It’s hard to be in community with others when we put them above us or below us in our minds. We can’t have complete joy without community.
“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1: 3-4).