How can we make comparison something that empowers and connects, instead of something that lowers self-esteem and creates rifts between people?
Although many people enjoy aerial arts as pure recreation, many include the performance element in their path and goals. Performance inspires us to always strive to be better–to hold ourselves to high standards (not that recreation doesn’t, but there is a greater pressure when you plan to share your work with an audience).
In aerial, I have always had eyes for form, technique, and style. My own, and also everyone else’s. On the one hand, observing other aerialists can be incredibly insightful. Once I watched a friend do a skill and immediately understood what I had been doing wrong for years.
On the other hand, comparing ourselves to other aerialists can be distracting and it can lead us off the course of our deeper purpose and out of alignment with our true creative selves. I have especially found this to be true when using social media, and actually never when in a class as a student or teacher.
But my experiences does not pertain to everyone. So I reached out to the aerial community to find out how you all feel about comparison and how it comes up for you. I’m sharing these perspectives and insights in this post to offer a fuller picture than just my ideas could compose.
One common response to the survey, consistent with my own observation, was that comparison tends to be more of an issue when using social media. Social media is very very fragmenting. You don’t get the full picture, you just get a snippet. The presentation of aerial work in this format leaves out 99.99% of what is really there.
Recreational aerialists might find themselves looking at a lot of professional aerialists, because of course they are quite exciting to follow. Then there may be some comparison. For example:
“I am always comparing myself to aerialists who have seemingly unlimited time to train, schedules that allow for several hours of workouts at a time, several days a week, when my schedule doesn’t allow me that. I compare (and come up short) against aerialists with more performance opportunities than I, or to local aerialists with “better” (what does that even mean?) performance opportunities. I feel not inferior to, but envious of those with more training time or extremely flexible careers that allow so much time to work out and train freely without other obligations.”
Even when you acknowledge that the professional aerialist have gone a different route than you, of course it is possible to compare yourself or become jealous of their situation. That’s okay. It appeared in front of your eyes, and you had a reaction. Be kind to yourself, and consider this interesting submission:
“I know others compare themselves to me, often, and it makes me feel a bit sad. I remind my team that I often practice 7 days a week, in and out of the studio; and have been doing so for over a decade. So if you think of it like that, I’m really not THAT good. But also, it’s taken a lot of hard work.”
Whether it’s on social media or in person, you probably don’t see much of that history of effort. You don’t see the sweat and bruises and aching muscles that went into mastering that gorgeous sequence. You don’t know if the aerialist might wonder if they should have chosen a different profession. You do see the aerialist’s proudest moments. If you knew every last detail, you might not feel jealous after all.
You can acknowledge that initial reaction and not feel terrible. Realize that it’s natural and normal, and then inject realism. “They worked hard for that. I’m proud of them for coming so far.” That will give any emotions of resentment a run for their money 😉
Call upon curiosity
We can learn so much from watching others practice aerial. If we can apply that lens of inquiry, comparison becomes less of a distraction and more of a tool for learning.
The key is that your interest in how others are doing is rooted in a desire to better understand aerial disciplines and your own body.
To do that, turn your comparison into a question.
They do this skill so effortlessly. I don’t. I suck.
- Are they using a different technique?
- Do they have a strength that I don’t, and if so, what drills can I do to develop it?
- Are they physically built differently? What does that tell me about the nature of this skill?
- Have they been training longer or more diligently than me?
- Do they train another apparatus with a similar skill that translated to this one?
- Have they put years of work into another athletic/artistic background that primed them for this?
Want answers? ASK THEM! Ask the aerialist! And hey, if they are going to lord their prowess over you and condescend to you instead of engage in a genuine conversation as equal human beings, then you can let the issue rest and shift your energy away from them. This is not a person you really need to be looking up to.
Occupying a learning/growth mindset helps some aerialists eliminate comparison pains:
“I find myself least consumed with comparison when viewing things online, tutorials etc, or when teaching skills.”
In the educational context, comparison didn’t make sense for this aerialist. The aerialist had already established a growth mindset with their intention to learn from the tutorial. This mindset can be cultivated! When you log onto Instagram, you might consider saying out loud: “I wonder what I can learn from my feed today.”
What becomes problematic is comparison that is not inquisitive but conclusive. “They got it in one try and I didn’t. I’m a failure.” “I got it in one try and they didn’t. I’m better than them.” In this case it’s more conclusive. “I’m great,” or “I suck.” These are dead ends in which you are all alone.
Remove the emotion
One aerialist has successfully made comparison into a tool by removing the emotion from it and allowing emotion to find its rightful place in appreciation for the journey of aerial:
“I’ve worked alongside a lot of aerialists, from a variety of skill-sets. We all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses; I try to learn from these and in doing so, I have to compare to what I’m doing; but it’s technical, not emotional. I tend to get emotionally comparative when I see how much my team has improved, comparing against their own skills last year, or last months, or three years ago. It’s phenomenal, seeing how aerial has shifted the mindset, physique, and poise of those so close to me. It’s been a beautiful journey!”
Practice internal reference
Whether you conclude that you are worse or better than someone else, it can damage your self esteem, because you’re basing your worth on somebody else. This means you define yourself relative to external forces, and you are not coming from a place of grounded confidence. But think about it–that person isn’t you! What do they have to do with your journey?
Re-focusing on your own process, with compassion, can heal this. That doesn’t mean that you only pat yourself on the back when you succeed in some way. It means you start looking at your whole practice and process and respecting the ups, downs, and plateaus.
I really appreciated this entry by an aerialist–I found it healed a part of my own perspective:
“When I’ve made something I’m proud of, something that is *my best* even if it’s not necessarily *the best*. Something that is unique to me and that I’ve poured into.”
I love how this person referred to their own experience to source pride from within. We are highly highly conditioned to ask everyone else “was this good?” We always look outside for validation. There is some place for that, and being receptive to others’ opinions is absolutely essential. But let’s say you performed an outstanding performance. Very good. Impressive. And everyone cheered and clapped and said it was marvelous, the best they’d ever seen. Well, what if you hated every minute of training? What if you fought with your apparatus? What if you overworked yourself? What if you tore your hamstring a little bit during the performance? What if the audience knew all about that? Then, they wouldn’t clap. They would just shake their heads. If you cause yourself undue suffering to create something so that others will clap, a deep reckoning is needed.
Our culture places far too much emphasis on the finished product. Let’s not fall for that. Let’s return rightful emphasis to process.
Play is powerful. Play requires your whole mind. It activates presence and focus. It is inherently exploratory and connects you with the moment. As I think of it, it’s a strong dose of sanity.
One aerialist wrote:
“I am least consumed by comparison when I am in the flow state; all else falls away, and it’s only me, apparatus, air, ground, and dance :)”
To me this makes sense. Flow state is connection. Flow state is gratitude. Flow state expands the space in which you play. No rules or expectations. It is what it is. If we could enjoy more of this, we could become more immune to the impulse to compare.
Community vanquishes unhealthy comparison
There was a thread of connection between the survey responses in which aerialists noted that relationship and community had the power to neutralize unhealthy comparison. Here’s what they said:
“I think learning together, and staying close, really helps comparative jealousy. Instead of being upset about what I don’t have, I’m happy for what my friends do have.”
“I am least consumed with comparison when I’m teaching, because then I have to be the voice of reason for my students and am trying to build good brain habits (in addition to good body habits) in them!”
“Sometimes in classes I find myself comparing my progress to others – however I find when I make friendships this stops. By making friends with everyone in the studio I stop comparing myself, instead it’s more cheering each other on. I also am very aware that everyone progresses at different speeds and each person has their own strengths and weaknesses and once you realise this you start to feel less insecure about yourself.”
I have found that good friends calm down our need to impress or win over. Good friends allow us to feel comfortable with who we already are, including our imperfections and struggles. Good friends provide that trust and love that help us shed our defenses and offenses. Strangers in the studio? Strangers online? They tend to be the people we stress out about the most. But why should we? They’re either going to show us kindness and friendship or keep their distance. Maybe the arrogance you think you’re sensing is actually them trying to impress you.
Kill the game before it starts. Commit to being who you already are.
I think the best advice I can offer is to not beat yourself up if you get caught up in comparison. There is a LOT of cultural conditioning that leads us to do this. If you are interested in connecting with your personal path and purpose, and deepening your relationship with your art, then practice noticing and redirecting the comparison reflex.
If you’d like a concrete practice to apply to help reprogram this impulse, try this. It can be modified. The main idea is to interrupt and redirect.
- Notice: catch yourself doing it and interrupt
- Reframe: turn your conclusions into questions
- Write it down: write down the instance and how you transformed your reaction
It does take work to unravel conditioning. Don’t stress yourself out about it if you struggle with it. And here’s a thought: if you’re noticing that Instagram gives you 100 comparison thoughts a minute, instead of trying to catch them all, maybe it would be better to start limiting time on Instagram (and maybe change who you follow or how you use the app). Seriously. There is no need to confront your triggers so frequently. If social media triggers you, then start phasing it out.
Remember that meaningful change takes time and you will have to go out of your way to reinforce the opposite response.