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Don't Let Comparative Thoughts Bring You Down

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This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on November 6th, 2014.

Sports are, by nature, comparative.

Athletes either win, or they lose… Competitors are placed and ranked according to how they perform… Some athletes are singled-out as MVPs, while others never get recognition.

The comparative and competitive nature of sports is one of the reasons why sports are so great. Having a winner at the end of every competition provides both structure and motivation, and learning how to “lose” is one of the biggest lessons that kids gain from participating in youth sports.

While competition and comparison are entrenched in sports culture––and American culture in general, for that matter––it is important to know when and how to shut down comparative thoughts. After all, living in a state of state of constant comparison is a toxic frame of mind.

You know the toxicity I’m talking about… That icky feeling of inadequacy you get after flipping through a beauty magazine: “I’m not ____ [fill in the blank: thin, young, pretty, wealthy] enough.” Or that sinking feeling that your life really isn’t as fun/exciting/successful/organized as everyone else’s when you peruse your friend’s posts on social media. (Hint: they’re only posting the good stuff.) This toxic frame of mind poisons both happiness and self-confidence; two ingredients we all could use a little more of in our lives.

In a recent talk, Steve Young (NFL Hall of Fame quarterback) talked about his experience playing for the 49ers in the shadow of his predecessor Joe Montana. He shared his struggles trying to fill Joe’s shoes, the problems within his team, and his feeling that he just could never measure up.

After awhile, however, Steve made a mental shift that changed his football career forever. He realized that, rather than focus on everything that wasn’t fair and everything that he lacked, he should instead pay attention to what he had: an amazing platform of opportunities and resources. The quest then became, NOT how good he could be relative to Joe Montana, but rather, how good he could be relative to HIMSELF. And every game, every moment, became an opportunity to find out.

There’s no denying that our brains these days are wired for competition and comparison. But that doesn’t mean our thought patterns can’t be overridden. It starts with noticing toxic comparative thoughts and shutting those thoughts down by instead focusing on yourself and what you do have going for you. (Another hint: it’s usually more awesome than you generally give yourself credit for.)

After all, at the end of the day, our quest is really quite simple: it should ultimately be exactly the same as Steve Young’s… How good can you be? How good can you be relative to yourself? Take everyone else out of the equation. Just you.