5 Options for Managing Toxic Comparisons
a starter guide
Jiu jitsu is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the fact that there is a high initial learning curve makes the learning experience uncomfortable; on the other hand, the personal realization that you were better than before makes the arduous process of skill development worthwhile.
Which edge of this double-edged sword one chooses to fall on has been a subject of personal exploration in the past year.
What I’ve come to understand, and to accept, is that a positive perception of progress in jiu jitsu is inversely correlated with the rate in which one makes toxic comparisons.
A toxic comparison is when one identifies a trait, skill, state, or quality that someone else possesses and in which they believe that they do not possess. Toxic comparisons are often accompanied by emotions like depression, anxiety, insecurity, inadequacy, and gloominess. Toxic comparisons hijack the rational mind and invade the feeling heart-center to direct the individual towards a persistent, often unfounded or unfair, perception of their own lack.
Comparison is not inherently bad. For instance, it’s commonly accepted wisdom that self-comparison can be helpful as a way of acknowledging how far someone has come in their training (“I definitely can beat up myself from a year ago!”). Comparison can serve as helpful calibration tool when figuring out how to adjust behavior (“My colleagues leave on time for work but I’m always staying late; maybe there’s something they’re doing that I’m not.”) These types of comparisons are informational in nature, make no shaming judgments of either side, and largely leave the individuals with agency to pursue a variety of options, one of which is to “do nothing.” (By the way, I’m a big fan of the “do nothing”—sometimes letting things be as they are can teach you a lot about yourself.)
But like a submission in jiu jitsu, a comparison can cause serious damage if taken too far. The key lies in the self-talk that occurs whenever one realizes that someone or something has what they personally desire. Sometimes, you can feel the difference, usually, like when one notices the slight sour of milk around the edges. Sometimes, though, the unconscious patterns of constantly comparing yourself are so ingrained in you that it’s hard to even think that there is another way of valuing yourself.
Here are 5 options for managing toxic comparisons.
Get off social media (especially IG)
Brene Brown once said on a podcast with Oprah that social media is where the “cesspool” of human nature lives, and I tend to agree. While I’ve had a lot of good experiences looking at pretty sticker accounts, I’ve also come to realize that this small benefit pales in comparison to the damage that it has done.
I do not have self control when it comes to social media. I scroll endlessly. I have tried muting notifications, only using the desktop, curating my algorithm, blocking toxic accounts and the entire gamut of behaviorial modifications short of quitting altogether.
But, when I am confronted (and usually, when I search up) an image of someone who has won gold medals, wears a bikini or simply has the right lighting, makeup and composition, it raises hackles in me that, taken to the extreme, are unhealthy. Jiu jitsu culture is inherently competitive and that means it will translate to anything it touches, including on Instagram where people are vying for attention, glory, or clout. This might seem like an extreme view to stop using Instagram entirely (why not just reduce time on it?), but because it can cause such extreme reactions in me, I need to stay away.
Acknowledge and accept (compassionately!)
Envy and jealousy are the strongest feelings that emerge when I engage in toxic comparison. For a long time, I was ashamed to have any sort of envy towards my teammates, friends, or random strangers. Then I just started to admit it more openly. First, in writing about it, and then, confiding in trusted friends. Not everyone deserves to hear my story. And for the people I talked to, it turns out that these emotions are completely normal and are felt by nearly everyone, too.
I think when I admit my ego and vanity to my friends, they respect me for my authenticity and for also being the person who says, “I know this about myself, and while I don’t like it, I won’t deny that it exists.”
Perhaps the friendship is even stronger because imperfection is what can connect two imperfect beings. Perhaps they see that I’m willing to admit what I’m not proud of, and then they will be more open to telling me things in the future that I might not want to, but need to, hear.
Step away (for a little, or a long, while)
I know this one is going to be unpopular, and where I’m going to lose a lot of you.
Sometimes jiu jitsu is the solution, but sometimes jiu jitsu is the problem. More specifically, I’ve come to realize that there is a fine line between a hobby that I enjoy and provides me some moderate levels of challenge and an obsession that is all-consuming in terms of my time, money, resources, relationships, and experiences. When my world shrinks down to only a small sliver of the entire human experience within my grasp, that’s when I start to feel miserable, because it can feel like I don’t have any options to feel happy besides having things be perfect in my small little world.
Taking a step back from jiu jitsu — on whatever length, frequency, form — is healthy, even if you’re not in crisis. For me, at my worst, jiu jitsu has all of the hallmarks of a serious addiction when it is taken too far. In the past, when I’ve I start to feel bad when I don’t perform well, my response was to push harder. This applied not only to jiu jitsu but also to academics and my career. Pushing harder gets you somewhere, but it doesn’t always get you to your destination.
Recently, I’ve been practicing the art of taking a step back. It has been healing in a lot of ways, because my identity is not tied down to any one thing: be it jiu jitsu, my job, my appearances, or my achievements. The evenings spent playing Bananagrams with my partner on my day off, or taking the time to work on a coloring book instead of watching instructionals, or sleeping in instead of rushing to open mat, teaches me other parts of myself.
Letting go, in a lot of ways, has taught me what is precious enough to hold onto.
Talk to a mental health professional
Therapy is the cool thing these days but in case you’re on the fence about making an investment, I highly recommend it. When I did panels with the Lawyers Assistance Program in DC, the biggest message was that therapy could be preventative for bigger and badder things that, when left alone, would cause a lot of mental distress.
If you’re engaging in a lot of toxic comparisons, chances are that like me, there are probably a ton of other issues going on, too. There doesn’t need to be a formal diagnosis to justify therapy, though, and more importantly, you don’t need to be in crisis. For me, my therapy has always been trying to raise my quality of life and let go of thoughts and actions that no longer serve me, as well as affirmatively trying to develop new skills that help me navigate future difficult situations.
Know what you want
In 2013, sixteen year old Katelyn Ohashi won the American Cup in her senior elite debut, ahead of soon to be multiple-times champion Simone Biles.
Ohashi went home. And cried.
As an athlete you learn to keep pushing through the pain until the pain eventually becomes unbearable. Even then, you are told to continue. I learned at a young age that my voice was not wanted or heard, so I went silent. I did what I was told and set goals based on what everyone else expected of me. This may sound shocking, but I never dreamed about going to the Olympics. It was just something people expected of me. My voice was so suppressed, I couldn’t even hear it at times. I felt brainwashed. Everyone else’s normal was becoming my reality and I was heading towards a physical and mental burnout. - Katelyn Ohashi, How walking away from elite gymnastics helped me reclaim my joy
After the experience, she went to her mother and asked to be taken for an MRI. Doctors found that she had been competing with a fractured verterbrae, among other serious injuries.
One of my vertebrates was protruding out from my spine, and I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t even touch my back without cringing. At just 16 years old, I was told that my back would never be the same again. My wellbeing had been neglected for the opportunity to win a gold medal.
For most of us who have come into jiu jitsu as adults, we made a choice to do this sport. So perhaps unlike Ohashi, we may believe that because we chose this sport, that we need to do everything possible to succeed, including sacrificing our own sense of self in order to achieve.
Yet, as life is wont to do, along that journey, we are sometimes led astray by motivations, people, and messages that make us forget what we really want. We see that someone has that medal or glory, and we want it for ourselves, simply because we haven’t done the hard work of figuring out if that is right for us.
Sometimes, in the case of Ohashi, she eventually found herself trapped by forces outside of her control, only finding “relief” when doctors told her that she might not do gymnastics ever again.
The point is, you always have choices (plural) for what you want in jiu jitsu. It does not have to be a certain way. Those choices may be difficult but making a change and digging into why you really love the sport, and how to best enjoy this martial art independent of other people’s expectations, is a worthwhile endeavor. (By the way, Ohashi eventually made a return in collegiate gymnastics and found joy there.)
Now as young women, we aren’t asking for all the power. We just need compromise. We don’t always know what is best, that is why coaches are hired and parents are there to guide. Verbal and mental abuse, unfortunately, are probably present within any high level sport but that also does not mean that that is the only way to win. Coaches need to learn when to keep pushing and when to pull back and that it is easier to understand and make corrections when it comes from an educational standpoint, rather than a reprimanding one. As developing individuals, it becomes extremely easy to take these antagonizing remarks personally. We haven’t developed as people yet, so of course we are impressionable, eager for approval, and more than anything I can assure we want success just as much as you, if not more. - Katelyn Ohashi, “Demanding Change and Moving Forward”
As kids, we aren’t really taught to respect our own desires, preferences and wants, because kids do not have control over their lives. It’s a cruel reality that once we become unmoored in the world as supposed young adults, we think that we have all of the power and agency in the world, only to find that sometimes, we fall into the same patterns of listening to the strongest and loudest voices in the room to tell us what we need to do, even if the best voice is the quiet one within our souls.