We’re All Running a Different Race – How to Avoid the Comparison Trap

It was about ten years ago.  I was running the Columbus Marathon and things were going well.  At a little before the halfway point, I was under my goal time and still feeling marginally okay.  Suddenly, I started getting the sensation that I was slowing down.  Are my legs moving at the same rate? Check.  Did my stride get shorter? Nope.  Are large groups of runners suddenly passing me?  Affirmative.  Up to this point in the race I had stuck with a consistent group of runners and maintained my position.  Now, runner after runner was streaking by me.  Some of them didn’t even look winded.  As I compared myself to those around me, my confidence started to melt away.  Would I even be able to finish this race? 

My mental and physical condition continued to degrade over the next half mile as I continued to be passed.  Where did this pack of super humans come from?  In the distance, I noticed what appeared to be a fork in the road, with runners going both directions.  Only when I got closer could I see the signs directing marathon runners to the right and half marathon and relay runners to the left.  It slowly dawned on me that the majority of runners that had passed me were taking the turn to the left that led directly to their finish line, while I continued to the right for the second half of my race.  The bursts of speed I was seeing were from people on the final steps of their race.

It’s natural to compare ourselves to others.  We use these comparisons to ensure we’re upholding the right social norms, progressing in ways that we need to, and maintaining our membership in social groups.  However, this comparison often goes beyond a simple check of our surroundings and into a pattern of self judgement that drains energy and moves us further from our goals. 

This unhealthy pattern is especially likely when we make uneven comparisons.  While running, I incorporated external progress, thoughts about the remaining miles, feelings, fears, and fatigue into consideration of my situation.  I then compared this complex view of progress with the brief snapshot of others’ progress as they ran past me.  We often make this same mistake when we see a perfect snapshot of a happy family on social media, hear from a friend that everything is “going great” with their teen’s high school experience, or see a coworker seem to breeze through a difficult task.  When compared with the totality of our experiences, it’s easy to for these snapshots to leave us feeling overwhelmed, less than, hopeless. 

I was able to finish the Columbus Marathon and ended up reaching my goal time.  Much of the second half of the race was spent thinking about the energy I had wasted comparing myself to runners competing in a totally different race.  I had fallen into a trap of comparing myself to the snapshots I saw of those around me. This comparison trap can become the lens through which we see the world, shaping each of our experiences. 

When we realize that the snapshots we see around us are unhealthy comparison sources, whether they be social media posts, brief interactions with friends, or assumptions about the experiences of others, we can free ourselves from the comparison trap and get a clearer view of our progress. 

Remember: We’re all running different races.  Mindfully evaluate sources of comparison.  Don’t waste energy trying to keep up with someone running a totally different race.