MAYDAY! I’m Caught in the Comparison Trap!
7 Habits for a Happier, Healthier Responder
“The only person you should try to be better than is who you were yesterday.”
Firefighters are some of the most competitive people I know. For the most part, that sense of competition is connected closely with camaraderie, and it serves us well: We push ourselves to run faster, perform better, learn more. And when one of us achieves something, we all benefit.
But sometimes competition takes a negative turn. Sometimes we look at what someone else has or does, or who they are, and resent that we don’t have those things or that we are not like that. So many people feel insecure about their bodies, careers, homes, and everything else because they compare themselves to what’s on TV, in magazines, or on social media. Even within our own fire stations, we compare shifts, departments, personalities, apparatus, equipment, policies, procedures.
You name it, we compare it! Probably not so different for cops, I would guess.
Why are we driven to compare ourselves to others? In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the Social Comparison Theory—that people determine their social and personal worth based on how they measure up to others. As a result, we constantly make evaluations across various aspects of life, including attractiveness, success and intelligence.
But while our tendency to compare is innate, taken too far it becomes negative. Rather than pushing you to do better, obsessing over how you compare to others can leave you discouraged and lacking confidence. Only about 10% of our happiness comes from external circumstances, such as money, possessions, career and even health (genetics accounts for about 50% of our happiness, while our actions and thoughts account for the remaining 40%). When good things happen to us—we get a new car or house, meet someone special, receive a promotion—our happiness does increase, but the effect is short-lived. So chasing after things others have—even if you successfully acquire them—is not a great way to achieve sustainable happiness.
The tendency to compare ourselves to others also wastes time and energy focusing on things we can’t control. We tend to make bad judgments in these comparisons, rating ourselves very low and the other person very high. Each of us is unique. We may think we can compare our situation to someone else, but in many ways it’s a false comparison that doesn’t account for our individual talents, experiences, and desires.
Getting caught in the comparison trap is a lot like getting lost, disoriented, injured, low on air or trapped on the fireground. We do a lot of safety and survival training on how to get ourselves out of such situations. We run Mayday drills, navigate entanglement props, learn how to regulate our breathing to keep us calm. Are we doing the same thing internally, preparing ourselves to recognize a dangerous mental situation and navigate out of it? Here are some survival steps to consider:
- Focus on your success. Whatever position you hold or wherever you are in life, you have done great things. Without being boastful, it’s important to have a mental inventory of your accomplishments both within the department and within your personal life. Use those successes to help you understand your unique strengths and build motivation to achieve even more. A quote from Galatians 6:4-5 comes to mind: “Each of you must examine your own actions. Then you can be proud of your own accomplishments without comparing yourself to others. Assume your own responsibility.”
- Appreciate and compliment others on their contributions. When a member of your crew achieves a goal, does your mind immediately jump to how you measure up? Try to interrupt that thought pattern and take time to genuinely appreciate and recognize the other person’s contributions. Competition is appropriate for promotional exams or a fitness challenge, but in most things, we need to work together.
- Be grateful. Do you ever think about how great our occupation is? So many people would love to be in the fire service. You did it! Be grateful and proud of yourself (but remain humble).
- Remember, nobody is perfect and everyone has problems, even if you can’t see them. There’s truth in the phrase, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” You may covet another person’s possessions or think that everything seems to come easy to them. But they may be thinking the same thing about you!
- Practice self-rehab. When negative comparisons threaten to take over your thoughts, take action to snap out of it. Go for a walk, take a yoga class, listen to music, cook a meal with family or friends, take the kids to see a movie. Changing your surroundings often brings changes in your thinking.
- Replace comparison with inspiration. When you hear about other people’s successes, use the energy of their achievement to stretch a little further toward your own goals.
- Make it a competition of one. If you need to compare, compare with yourself. Are you faster, smarter, wiser, more accomplished than you were five years ago? If not, what’s holding you back? Commit to self-growth by taking classes, getting involved in new department activities, or volunteering within your community.
Everyone struggles in this life. That’s a fact. When we approach others with empathy, rather than envy, we broker greater self-knowledge and, in the work of first response, better service. Bottom line: You can’t be more like someone else, you can only be more like yourself.
“Comparing yourself to others is an act of violence against your authentic self.”
About Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.