It has happened to me: that picture on Instagram (or Facebook or any form of social media) that suddenly makes me feel inadequate. It could be someone elses finish time, or their super bendy yoga pose or their perfectly cute and happy kid and their spacious living room in the background. In the blink of an eye I’ve compared myself and found something lacking: I’m not fast enough. I’m not flexible enough. I’m not a good enough mom and my house is most definitely too small. It doesn’t happen frequently but when it does I find myself suddenly feeling discouraged. Or maybe the opposite has happened. A glance at their photo and suddenly I realize I’m faster. I’m more flexible. I have a happier, more well-adjusted kid. My living room is more tastefully decorated. And suddenly I’m walking tall and feeling confident.
It is all too easy. For many, especially for athletes, the draw of being active is competition. It is in our blood. We train with competition in mind. We compete with winning in mind. The unfortunate side-effect is that sometimes that mindset trickles into our daily life: we compete and compare almost unknowingly.
Comparison and competition aren’t inherently unhealthy; in fact in the right context it can push us to our greatest performances in every aspect of our lives. In an interview by Runner’s World1 about her training relationship with her former rival Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher remarked, “Of course I want to beat Shalane… And if you asked her, ‘Do you want to beat Kara?’ she would not hesitate to say yes. And I would hope not. We want one of us to win and to win big, and it’s more likely to happen if we help each other get there.” Competition can be healthy and can lead us on a journey of discovering new strengths.
But when comparison brings our deepest insecurities to the forefront it can leave us discouraged, doubting ourselves and our abilities. Sometimes that discouragement can lead to a desperate scramble for a something to boost our confidence and, in an instant, you’re once again comparing yourself, putting someone else down so that you can feel better.
The comparison trap is nothing new. But the advent of social media has certainly made it easier. It used to be that when you ran a marathon, or PR’d your triathlon, or nailed a yoga pose you’d been working at for months, or your kid took their first steps or you brought that dream house you had to offer that information up to co-workers, friend and relatives in person. There was context within the conversation. Now we post pictures with brief captions and the context is often lost, along with the personal connection. It becomes easier to take offense, to compare and to feel the need to compete.
Perhaps we have lost some personal connection through social media, but it seems too that we have made back those connections in new ways. There’s a vulnerability in offering up aspects of our lives on social media and vulnerability can bring people together — people with whom you never would have crossed paths with before. Relationships form. People become connected.
And there is power in those connections: that is the beautiful and positive power of social media. Although it can be easy to fall into the trap of comparing and competing we can combat that tendency by finding ways to uplift and encourage others. In the same interview, Shalane Flanagan said of her training with Kara Goucher, ““Sharing the journey is the most important thing.” There couldn’t be truer words. We are all on a journey. Our paths may be different. We may walk differently. But we can still find a way to share the journey. We can find something to praise; we can find a way to promote. We can think of something encouraging to say. It’s the anecdote to comparison. And it can even give us power over our own insecurities.
Sarah Canney is a wife, mother, runner and defeater of bulimia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She is passionate about family, running and freedom and she blogs about it at RunFarGirl.com.
Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher are Teammates and Rivals, Tish Hamilton