The Thief of Joy
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
As is the case with many quotes on the Internet, it can be difficult to determine who actually originated commonly used sayings. With “comparison is the thief of joy,” the same holds true.
Irrespective of who formulated the popular axiom, I’ve determined that a significant number of people with whom I interact agree with the proposition. Seemingly, when people compare themselves to others the outcome isn’t always something that promotes joy.
One may argue that when comparing one’s position to a person with less success or more misery comparison may actually uplift one’s mood. To this I ask, is that your experience in life? Do you tend to compare yourself to others and through doing so you become gleeful?
When I speak of comparison I’m referring to the definition that describes it as “the act of evaluating two or more things by determining the relevant, comparable characteristics of each thing, and then determining which characteristics of each are similar to the other, which are different, and to what degree.”
For the sake of discussion, I’ll use myself as an example. Suppose I were to compare myself to other mental health practitioners. To whom would I compare and contrast? Also, what metric would I use?
I practice Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), understood to fall under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Essentially, this psychotherapeutic modality considers how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral aspects of one’s life.
I could assess my standing through measurement with those who practice Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and other CBT modalities. What metrics of comparison would I use?
· Clinical outcomes (success or challenges of clients with whom I work)
· Monetary outcomes (how much money I make when compared to others)
· Popularity of the clinical intervention (how well-liked REBT is when compared to other therapies)
· Reviews and testimonials (feedback from clients about my job performance)
· Recommendations (how likely one is to refer others to my services)
· Introspective assessment (what I think about how I’m performing)
Perhaps through examination I conclude that my clients have a relatively high success rate, I earn more money than at least half of my CBT peers, REBT is among the top efficacious approaches within the field, people leave glowing reviews about me on public forums, I receive many referrals from current or past clients, and I determine that I’m a top performer in my field.
Given the metrics with which I assess myself when compared to other CBT clinicians I say to myself, “Gee, Deric, you’re a wonderful psychotherapist.” Would this conclusion be reliable and valid?
Per one source, “Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions). Validity refers to the accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).”
Some people may suggest that my results are unreliable, because my biased measure isn’t what others would use. For instance, a person could say that a therapist isn’t successful until at least three decades of service to others are completed.
Even by use of my narrowly-defined metrics, other providers may conclude that my criteria are arbitrary and therefore invalid. They could conduct an independent review of my performance and discover that I’m nothing more than ordinary.
When comparing myself to other therapists there simply may not be an objective, absolute method I could use which others may consider reliable or valid. What then is the purpose of comparing myself to others?
I suppose I could argue that in so doing I may raise my self-esteem by convincing myself that I have worth in my field. However, isn’t it also true that by using the same assessment I may discover how little worth I have?
I’m uncertain of how often people compare themselves to others and walk away thinking, “Gee, I’m wonderful.” In both my personal and professional life I’ve learned that rarely when people compare themselves to others does this process result in joy.
What’s on your plate?
In the Hip Hop and REBT portion of my blog, I’ve previously referenced M.O.P—one of my favorite rap duos. Before the death of rapper Sean Price—from another of my preferred hip hop duos, Heltah Skeltah—M.O.P recorded a fiah track with Sean P. entitled “Big Gun vs. Little Gun.”
For those with sensitive constitutions, you may want to pass on tracks from either duo.
On the track, Lil Fame states, “You tryna watch somebody else’s fate. Listen; don’t let your food get cold tryna watch somebody else’s plate.” This phrase relates to comparison.
It reminds me of another quote I’ve heard, “Don’t let your ice cream melt while you’re counting someone else’s sprinkles.” What do these quotes mean to you, dear reader?
If you could forgive me an anecdote, when I was a young Marine I went to The Big Texan Steak Ranch and attempted the 72-ounce steak challenge. The meal consisted of shrimp cocktail, a baked potato, a salad, one dinner roll with butter, and a 72 oz. steak (4 1/2 pounds of meat).
I thought I was “tougher than woodpecker lips” and wanted to see how I’d compare to others I’d known who also endured a trial by meat. As the challenge began, I was joyous and focused only on my plate, somehow convincing myself that would be successful.
Suddenly, my self-challenge became a competition—at least in my mind. I first finished all the sides while making the mistake of drinking water to keep my mouth moist, which wound up creating the sensation of being full sooner than I’d hoped.
As I ate, I watched the other guy’s plate. He had a smooth rhythm and though he began eating after me I was being bested. A voice was in my head, telling me how embarrassing it would be not to finish the challenge in front of family who went to support me and strangers who watched as I ate.
With slightly under 11 minutes left and several sizable portions of steak to go, I was miserable. The steak was cold at that point and I paid so much attention to someone else’s plate that I’d defeated my own ambition with the belief that I couldn’t succeed.
Ultimately, I came within seven small bites of finishing. A waiter informed me that I couldn’t simply crowd my mouth with the food, because everything had to be completely swallowed in order for a successful attempt.
I was relieved to pay a fee and get off that stage having failed my mission. Relief from the absence of continued suffering though not in the presence of joy.
From an REBT perspective, I now understand that it wasn’t simply that I was eating the equivalent of a full pot roast with trimmings which resulted in a dejected outlook. Rather, it’s what I told myself about losing the perceived challenge that robbed my joy.
REBT uses the ABC Model to demonstrate how what we tell ourselves about an event is what leads to self-disturbance. In my case, my irrational (B)elief about the (A)ction of competing caused the (C)onsequence of displeasure: A+B=C.
Perhaps most relevant when comparison is at play, I didn’t use unconditional self-acceptance in place of my unhelpful belief. I had no influence or control over the behavior of other people though I could’ve told myself a more healthy narrative than I did.
I could’ve said to myself, “This is a difficult feat alone and adding the unnecessary burden of competing with someone else may not be beneficial.” There’s nothing inherently wrong or dishonest about this healthy alternative script.
If I were to change my belief, the consequence of a behavioral adjustment would’ve likely followed. Instead of tryna watch somebody else’s fate; I wouldn’t have let my food get cold tryna watch somebody else’s plate.
Let me not be too Pollyannaish about 72-ounces of meat with all the trimmings in one setting and timed for an hour. I still may not have finished the meal in time had I not shared the stage that evening.
However, I would likely not have disturbed myself as much as I did by needlessly comparing my progress to that of another person. Comparison and the belief associated with it made my situation worse.
When realizing that we are the thieves of our own joy we can adequately use restorative justice as a type of criminal justice reform. With hope, we can then refrain from reoffending and enJOY life in a more helpful, healthy way.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, and hip hop head from the old school, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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