The king of Siam used to give white elephants to select courtiers as gifts, and seeing the white elephants was a highlight for visitors to the region. What these outsiders didn’t know about these fabulous “gifts” was that they were really curses given by the king to those who had fallen out of his favor. The elephants looked spectacular, but they ate huge amounts of food, required daily care, and could never be sold or given away (because they were gifts from the king). Our posts on social media are often like the elephants—“highlights” for others to ooh and ah over that mask a very different reality.
One of the easiest things to do in life is engage in “the comparison game,” and social media have made it almost impossible not to. The desire to “keep up with the Joneses” is even harder to avoid when you’re constantly seeing so many “highlight reels” on Instagram and Twitter. You say to yourself, “Look what they have/do/get … I have to do or have that also.”
It is such a deadly game. Why?
- Everyone’s story has tradeoffs, and the tradeoffs are not on the social media highlight reel. Think of the white elephants and the costs that came with them. What is the cost of each particular highlight in time, money, relationships, energy, sacrifice, denial of self? Do you want to pay that cost in your own life? Olympic medalists’ victories should be highlighted, and they are. But hidden from view are the years of 14-hour days, the missed family and social events, the physical injuries, etc.
- Keeping up with the Joneses takes your eyes away from your own path and focuses them on someone else’s. Why would you let their story steal time and energy from your story?
- It distorts your own beautiful talents and story, makes them seem “less than” or “greater than”—neither of which is productive.
- You assign emotion to the meaning it creates for you, but the meaning itself may be of little value.
Let’s be honest. We all get stuck in the comparison trap sometimes in our lives. Here is what I do when I fall into that trap and it is about to swallow me up into 15 minutes of wasted time and “what ifs”:
I say to myself, “How wonderful for them. How great that they are bringing this talent to the world. Their new highlights give me something I could also strive for if I wanted it. Do I want that? Would it have real meaning for me? Or is it simply a mirage of some indefinable wanting on the horizon?”
What are the highlights in my life? How can I be more grateful for them? What are all the ways that I am blessed?
All highlights can either be a grievance or a miracle, a gift or a curse, a blessing or a prayer—and sometimes they are all of these.
Just as the daylight covers one half of the world and leaves the other half in darkness, so does the comparison game shed light on only one part of the reality.
Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher, and career educator. Recognized internationally for A Framework for Understanding Poverty, her foundational book and workshop, Dr. Ruby Payne has helped students and adults of all economic backgrounds achieve academic, professional, and personal success.