Years ago, I had a boss I disliked; he got under my skin so badly that his ghost haunted me years after I’d quit working for him and started my own company. I didn’t realize how thoroughly he’d occupied my unconscious mind until I woke up, five years into running my business, and saw the signs everywhere that while I thought I’d built a company that reflected my personal values and priorities, I had made many of my decisions in an absurd, belated rebellion against him. Where he had been relentlessly self-promotional to the point of arrogance, I resisted marketing. Where he had bought into rapid, exponential growth as the only path to business success, I refused to hire help even though I was working myself to the bone.
A decade after my wake-up call, I hear echoes of the same “comparison-itis” in the entrepreneurs and creative professionals I coach and advise: Entrepreneurs stifling their marketing attempts out of a terror of being “that guy.” Dislike of a particular colleague’s sales approach turns into a rejection of the entire notion of developing a sales system. And I can’t count the number of musicians I’ve seen sabotage their careers out of a terror of being a sell-out.
I became so fascinated by this recurring theme, in fact, that I’ve spent the last year collaborating with leadership coach Tanya Geisler on researching why we compare ourselves to other people, what happens when we do it, and how to break the habit. Through our research, we’ve devised a framework for understanding and transforming comparison from an unconscious habit that can distort our view of ourselves and others, into a more self-aware and compassionate perspective.
There’s a fine line between discernment and disdain—between noticing a quality that doesn’t sit well with us, and rejecting it (along with the people we see as embodiments of that quality) wholesale. I could have chosen to grow my business slowly and steadily, rather than fighting growth tooth and nail. But to do that, I would have had to face my fear of appearing greedy and rash; instead, I chose to sit stubbornly in denial of what my business was asking of me.
What transformed all of this for me was taking a good, hard look at what I was cutting myself off from, by defining myself in opposition to someone else—and asking what my nemesis could teach me.
Try this: turn your thoughts to that person you keep running into at networking events, whose elevator pitch always leaves you feeling greasy; the columnist whose opinions never fail to stoke the fires of your outrage; the once-cool, indie filmmaker who sold out and started dating fashion models; or the work colleague who seems to have made sucking up to his superiors his job description—any of the people who get under your skin or repel you.
Now ask yourself:
- How do I feel about this person, in general?
- What specifically about them is so triggering? (Spend a good amount of time here, dumping it all out.)
- What are they modeling for me, in a “how not to be” way?
- How does my reaction relate to my own values?
Here comes the tricky part. Until now, you’ve been labeling this person with a quality (or qualities) you’d prefer to distance yourself from: smugness, for example, or perhaps selfishness. When we succumb to disdain, we transform our worst fears about ourselves into a kind of reverse-affirmation levied at someone else. If he’s an arrogant windbag, then my self-image as a modest and thoughtful person is reaffirmed, while my terror of self-promotion or provoking conflict can safely be tucked away into a corner labeled “bad” and “not me.”
On the other hand, if I have a habit of judging people as arrogant windbags, it might behoove me to take a look in the mirror and ask myself, “Where in my life could I stand to assert myself more strongly?” Or, “Where am I staying silent and abdicating my authority?” Chances are, the reason I’m so triggered by so-called arrogance is that I’m denying my inner arrogant jerk—so to speak. (Or to put it more kindly, my inner assertive authority.)
So whatever that quality is for you, I invite you to recognize it for what it is: fear. Whatever we disdain in others hides a gift for us—a quality that, once we face and integrate it, will stop haunting us and make us more whole.
If you can’t bear to hear people bragging, ask yourself: Where do I stop myself from celebrating my life? How could I practice more gratitude? Or if selfishness triggers you, ask yourself where you might be harboring resentment about your own self-sacrifice and self-denial.
To shift your focus from “out there” to “in here”—and gain insight into what the people triggering you have to teach you – ask yourself:
- Who do I judge for doing what I’m embarrassed to admit I do, too? What’s the behavior I’m ashamed of?
- Who do I judge for behaving in ways I secretly wish I could “get away with”? What do I fear would happen if I behaved that way, too?
- How have these fears held me back?
- What do I want for myself? (And what do I want for the person who’s been triggering me?)
- What could I do if I gave myself permission to embody those qualities, judiciously and wisely?
Stepping out of comparison mode was a major turning point in both my personal development and my evolution as an entrepreneur. I stopped chasing imaginary enemies and started focusing on my own priorities and paths for growth.
And I discovered that my unconscious battle with my nemesis hadn’t only held me back—it had affected those around me, too. When I finally sat down face-to-face with my fear of being self-congratulatory, I recognized all the ways in which I had denied myself opportunities to celebrate successes—and that my self-deprecating habits were not only making it difficult for other people to see the impact I was making, but they also made it hard for my colleagues to feel recognized and appreciated.
Once I began building some new muscles around celebrating my accomplishments and marketing my business, I not only discovered that my career was thriving, but that the specter of my former boss had quietly disappeared.
It seems that after all those years of pitched battle, all it really took to dispatch my nemesis was a good, hard look in the mirror.