One of the biggest thought distortions I’ve noted while doing CBT homework that I tend to fall prey to is comparing myself to others.
The only way to assess how I’m doing in life, it seems, is by putting my yardstick up against that of everyone around me.
If I find that I’m doing “better” than another person for a similar metric, I feel unrealistically good about myself. If I find that I’m going “worse,” then I’m down in the dumps, burning with envy and frustration and feeling awful about myself.
As a writer, comparing yourself to other writers just isn’t a good idea.
The thing is, because fellow writers are our peers, it’s tempting to make a comparison to them on how well we’re doing. It’s not like I would be so prone to comparison if I compared my word count to the baking abilities of a hypothetical friend into making cookies and cakes (I have no such friend, alas). Comparing word count to cookies and cakes is, and yes, it’s a cliché, but it bears repeating: apples to oranges.
Here’s what I’m coming around to thinking, though: almost all comparisons, no matter how “direct” they might seem, have the potential to be distorted. Or, put another way, every comparison is apples to oranges.
Let’s say I compare my word count to a fellow fiction writer . . . how about Ernest Hemingway! Hemingway tended to write 500 words a day. Big whoop, I think. I like to shoot for 2000 words a day. 500 seems too easy. So, if Hemingway and I fall for the comparison distortion, he’ll feel bad about himself and I’ll think I’m a better writer than him.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Besides his lack of 21st Century writing technology, such as the laptop computer, Hemingway probably had a whole slew of reasons for going for 500 words a day that I don’t know about. Maybe he had social engagements. Big game to hunt and fishes to . . . fish. Books to read, of course. So it’s unfair of me to assume that I’m a better writer just on numbers alone, not to mention that word count gives no indication what quality of writing is coming from those 500 or 2000 words.
Outside of words written, what are some other ways we writers might make the mistake of comparing ourselves to one another?
Publication status, awards, and general prestige come to mind.
If you’re unpublished, you might feel bad about yourself and your writing abilities if you think of the writers you know that are landing their works into print at last. “When will that ever happen to me?” you might wonder. “What am I doing wrong?”
You aren’t doing anything wrong. If you believe in your abilities and know that you can grow as a writer, than comparing yourself to someone who might’ve gotten to your goal (publication) sooner than you have won’t be as tempting. Even if you never do reach that goal—at least in your lifetime—you can at least know that you were dedicated to your craft and that it helped you grow as a person.
The fundamental flaw with comparisons, and I have to remind myself of this so many times every day, is that it assumes you know everything about another person’s situation because, of course, you know everything about yours.
As with the Hemingway example, this simply isn’t possible. Putting to rest comparisons to others can help you focus on your own motivations and priorities. You know your situation and what you can do to help it make you a better writer, whether it be making time to write more or to leave your writing comfort zone. Remember, these are things you can change. What you can’t change in so many cases is how you “stack up” against your peers. If it’s not changeable, I like to repeat to myself the Serenity Prayer, which helps me cope with envy in a healthy manner.
A final word on comparisons: you might want to think of how (un)helpful they can be when it comes to making progress as a writer. Is thinking that you’re such a failure at writing because you wrote 400 words today and Hemingway wrote 500 helping you as a writer?
I’ve found that almost all of the comparisons I do are unhelpful and just make me feel worse about my situation. More helpful thinking like “It would be great if I could write [insert your daily writing goal here] today, but I realize and accept that I wasn’t able to do that today” could be useful rather than external comparisons.