Archive for October 2011

Let Go of Negative Comparison

October 19 2011

 For this week’s audio podcast, click here.

I’m heading to my 15-year class reunion at Stanford this weekend.  I’m excited to see some old friends, spend time on campus, and attend the various parties, sporting events, and fun stuff planned for the weekend.  At the same time, I’m feeling quite anxious about the whole experience – knowing how easy it can be for me, especially in that environment, to get caught in a pattern of negative comparison.

As I looked through our 15-year reunion class book a few weeks ago (a book where fellow classmates submit a page with an update on their lives), I got a sick feeling in my stomach as the little voice in my head started saying things to me like, “Look how much more successful he is than you,” or “That person looks exactly the same as they did in school, they haven’t aged a bit…unlike you,” or “They seem to have things figured out, you clearly don’t,” and more.

Sadly, many of us spend and waste lots of time and energy comparing ourselves to others. Often times we end up feeling inferior to people based on our own self judgment and hyper criticalness. However, we also may find ourselves feeling superior to some of the people around us, based on certain aspects of our lives and careers we think are going well and/or the specific struggles of the people in our lives.  Reunions (as well as things like Facebook, holiday letters, and more) can can often highlight or intensify this phenomenon.

This comparison game is almost always a trap because whether we feel “less than” someone else or “better than” another person, we’re stuck in a negative loop. This is the same coin – heads we “win” and think we’re better and tails we “lose” and think we’re worse. In addition to comparing ourselves to other people, we also compare ourselves to ourselves from the past (something I’ve been noticing as I get ready for this weekend’s reunion).  One of the most negative thoughts and biggest fears that I allow to take away my power in life is, “I’m not as good as I used to be.”

All of this is an insatiable ego game that sets us up to lose. Comparison leads to jealousy, anxiety, judgment, criticism, separation, loneliness, and more. It’s normal for us to compare ourselves to others (and to our past selves) – especially given the nature of how most of us were raised and the competitive culture in which we live. However, negative comparison can have serious consequences on our self esteem, our relationships, our work, and our overall experience of life.

The irony is that almost everyone feels inferior in certain ways, and we often erroneously think that if we just made more money, lost some weight, had more friends, got a better job, moved into a nicer place, had more outward “success”, found the “perfect” partner (or changed our partner into that “perfect” person), or whatever – than these insecure and unhealthy feelings of inferior/superior comparison would simply go away. Not true.

How we can transform our negative comparison process into an experience of growth, connection, and self acceptance (and ultimately let it go) is by dealing with it directly and going to the source – us and how we relate to ourselves.

Here are some things you can do to unhook yourself from negative comparison:

  • Have empathy and compassion for yourself. When we notice we’re comparing ourselves to other people (or to our past self) and we start feeling either inferior or superior, it’s essential to have a deep sense of compassion and empathy for ourselves. Comparison almost always comes from a place of insecurity and fear, not of deficiency or mal-intent. Judging ourselves as “less than” someone else or judging ourselves for going into comparison mode in the first place (which many of us do once we become aware of our tendency to do this), doesn’t help. In fact, this judgment causes more harm and keeps us stuck in the negative pattern.
  • Use comparison as an opportunity to accept, appreciate, and love yourself. When negative comparison shows up, there is usually a lack of acceptance, appreciation, and love for ourselves. Instead of feeling bad about what we think is wrong with us or critical of ourselves for being judgmental, what if we took this as a cue to take care of and nurture ourselves in an authentic way? Comparison is a cry for us to accept and appreciate ourselves. If we listen to this important message and heed it, we can liberate ourselves from the negative pattern of comparison.
  • Be willing to admit your own jealousy. One of the best ways to release something is to admit it (i.e. “tell on yourself”). While this can be a little scary and vulnerable to do, when we have the courage to admit our own jealousy, we can own it in a way that is liberating to both us and other people. Acknowledging the fact that we feel jealous of another person’s success, talents, accomplishments, or qualities is a great way to let go of it and to remove the barrier we may feel with that person or experience. If you find yourself jealous of someone you don’t know (like a celebrity or just someone you haven’t met personally), you can acknowledge these feelings to someone close to you or even in a meditation with an image of that actual person.
  • Acknowledge the people you compare yourself to. Another great way to break through the negative impact of comparing ourselves to others is to reach out to them with some genuine appreciation. I am planning to do this all weekend at my reunion. The more excited we’re willing to get for other people’s success, talents, qualities, and experiences – the more likely we are to manifest positive feelings and outcomes in our own lives. There is not a finite amount of success or fulfillment – and when we acknowledge people we compare ourselves to, we remind ourselves that there is more than enough to go around and that we’re capable of experiencing and manifesting wonderful things in our own life as well.

Where do you compare yourself to others (or to yourself from the past) in a way that is detrimental?  What can you do on a regular basis to let go of negative comparison? Share your ideas, commitments, thoughts, dreams, and more on my blog below.

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The Power of Empathy

October 13, 2011

For this week’s audio podcast, click here.

I had a painful, but poignant phone conversation earlier this week with my wife Michelle.  She shared some challenges with me in a vulnerable and passionate way.  As I started to give her some of my “helpful advice” (as I often do – being a man, as well as an author, speaker, and coach, I’m fairly well trained at giving advice), she stopped me and said, “Can’t you just give me empathy for me?  That’s what I really need right now.  Once I feel your empathy, I can hear your feedback.”

Her comment stopped me in my tracks.  I got defensive and began to justify myself – arguing that I did, indeed, have a lot of empathy and that she should be more open to my feedback.  Needless to say, my defensiveness (and subsequent arrogance and self righteousness) didn’t help things, and the conversation got worse before it got better, which it eventually did.

Michelle’s feedback, however, registered with me at a very deep level.  Although I “understand” the importance of empathy, teach it to others through my work, and have the capacity to experience and express a great deal of empathy with people around me, it’s sometimes difficult for me to have empathy for the people closest to me, including myself, especially recently.  Maybe you can relate?

Empathy can be tricky, particularly when we have an emotional connection (or attachment) to the people or situation involved (which we almost always do).  It’s also challenging to feel empathy when we feel threatened, stressed, or emotionally triggered (all of which we can experience a lot, especially with those who mean the most to us).  And, empathy is sometimes misunderstood.

Empathy is NOT:

  • Sympathy
  • Pity
  • Agreement
  • Commiseration
  • Endorsement

Simply put, empathy is getting into another person’s world and connecting with them both emotionally and compassionately. We don’t have to agree with them or fully understand them to be able to empathize. We don’t even need to be able to relate to what they are experiencing specifically (although that can help).  We just need to be present, connect with them where they are, and acknowledge what they’re experiencing.  Empathy for ourselves, while different contextually, actually functions the exact same way, simply turned inward.

The problem is that we often allow our egos, opinions, and judgments to get in the way of our ability to experience and express empathy.  If I agree with someone completely, can totally relate to them, and see things exactly as they do, it’s quite easy for me to empathize with them.

However, if I don’t agree, can’t relate, have a very different take on the situation or actually think how they’re reacting to things is potentially harmful for them and others, it’s often very hard for me to be empathetic towards them and I also worry that my expression of empathy could come across as agreement or endorsement.

While it can be challenging, the power of empathy is essential to the health and success of our relationships and lives.  It is a key element to our own emotional intelligence and well being.  With the people closest to us, including ourselves, and the issues that mean the most to us, empathy is even more critical, but often more difficult for us to experience and express.

Here are a few things to remember and practice to enhance your capacity for empathy:

  • Ask yourself where empathy is missing. Take inventory of your life and relationships and notice where empathy may be wanted, needed, or simply missing.  As you identify situations, relationships, and personal matters that could use an increased amount of empathy, make a commitment to yourself to bring less judgment and more compassion to them.
  • Reach out to people in your life. As you identify specific situations and relationships where you could bring more empathy, reach out to the people involved and let them know.  There may be an apology to give, an acknowledgement to make, or simply an admission that you want to bring more empathy and compassion (and less judgment, advice, self righteousness, etc) to your relationship.  Start working to do that with the most important people in your life.
  • Ask how people are feeling and really listen to what they say. One of the best ways we can express empathy towards others is through our curiosity and listening. When people feel heard, seen, and emotionally understood, they often relax, open up, and feel supported. Asking people how they truly feel, what’s really going on in their world, AND listening to how they respond (without judgment) are some of the best things we can do to express our empathy for the people around us.

All of these things also hold true with regard to having empathy and compassion for ourselves, which is essential in this process.  Like most things in life, we can’t give away what we don’t already have ourselves.  Self empathy is the foundation.

Everyone on the planet, including us, is almost always doing the very best they can in each moment.  We’re all just dealing with the joy, pain, growth, challenge, and more of being human.  Remembering this allows us to cut ourselves and others some loving slack, and engage in life, in our relationships, and with ourselves with a deep sense of respect, reverence, and, ultimately, empathy.

Where in your life is empathy wanted, needed, or simply missing (with others and/or yourself)?  How can you start giving yourself and those around you more empathy in an authentic and generous way?  Share your ideas, commitments, thoughts, dreams, and more on my blog here. Share your ideas, commitments, thoughts, dreams, and more on my blog below.

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