Comparison: The Thief of Joy?

Kate Hughes
Written by Kate Hughes

I love paperclips. There, I’ve said it. And not your bog-standard silver issue ones, oh no. I’m talking about the ones shaped like roller-skates and flamingos. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to curb my purchasing of such fancies, on account of the fact that I really don’t deal with that much paper any more. Even when I did, I’m not sure how impressed the senior partners were to receive a legal argument or brief adorned with a pineapple instead of the customary pink ribbon. But I digress. What I have been thinking about lately is that old adage “comparison is the thief of joy”.

When I first heard that expression a few years ago I thought it sounded rather biblical and not remotely relevant to me. But when it was explained, I realised how true it really is, not to mention how often we do compare ourselves to others. It’s fatal. The end result is always ‘I’m not good enough’. Without exception. Or, for a touch of variety replace the adjective with ‘slim’, ‘attractive’, ‘rich’, ‘active’, ‘disciplined’, travelled’, ‘kind’. The list goes on and on; take your pick.

I found myself falling into this trap at a yoga class recently. It’s easy to do, and possibly one of the very worst places to do it! The teacher was demonstrating a forward fold. Of course, she did it faultlessly and made it look unbelievably easy. She looked like a beautifully formed paper-clip (silver variety) all neatly folded up, nose on knees, butt in the air, legs poker-straight. I took a surreptitious glance in the mirror and noticed that I resembled a fork with several prongs jutting out at funny angles. Or a firework-shaped paperclip at best.

comparison quote

When I caught myself judging in this way I had to have a word with myself. Of course, it transpired that the teacher had been perfecting that pose for months if not years, whereas I rock up on my mat for a few hours a week. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter anyway. I enjoyed my class, I’d felt the benefit of the stretch, I had done my best.

Due to my stationery obsession (it does go way beyond the paperclip fixation I’m afraid), I actually prefer the expression “don’t measure yourself against someone else’s ruler”. So when I came across an old journal the other day I was fascinated to read the one and only entry in it. It literally stopped me in my tracks. It was written 9 years ago when I was in full-swing as a managing partner at the solicitors firm. Please indulge me as I share this snippet:

“OK, so I have bought a journal. How very American of me. Decided I really need to do something about this incessant chattering that goes on in my head. Am testing the theory that if I write it down it won’t haunt me at 4.30am, which is precisely what happened last night, or this morning to be exact. That never happens to me: wide awake and no prospect of seeing the sandman again that night. Was fretting over work. (‘Totally unnecessary’ is what my boss said when I later recounted the horror of my night to him). Why the hell I then decided to go to the office at 5am I couldn’t really tell you, except that I did get a lot of work done before everyone else arrived, then Rosie made an appearance at 7.30am. When I asked her about her day I was aghast to learn that getting up at 5am was the norm for her and like me, she has no kids. Pure craziness. I felt a bit crap about it as I know that she gets paid peanuts, and everyone else’s view about my hours are ‘well she’s a partner, that’s what she gets paid for’. Which is true enough I suppose. But I strongly believe that I am entitled to 8 hours of undisturbed sleep without the fear that I am going to wake up in a cold sweat with a vision of my balding boss”.

I wrote that 5 years before I got ill through stress. I didn’t listen to any of the warning signs, I lived my life at 100mph, and my priorities and goals were completely at odds with what they are today.

So I think that it’s OK to compare myself now to myself back then. Actually quite useful in fact. I feel like I have learned a lot, changed a lot, and am a lot better at looking after myself. Thieves and rulers aside, if we can’t learn from our own experiences, if we can’t hark back every now and then, if we can’t reflect in a non-judgmental way, how else do we grow?