On comparison – the joy thief.

A few months ago my girls were both involved in a cheerleading competition.

Now before you have the same reaction as me, let me tell you what cheerleading is not: pompoms. And let me tell you what cheerleading is: synchronised swimming on dry land, gymnastics and throwing each other into the air.

(Still not sounding that appealing? I’m with you.)

This competition was a big deal. Held at the local arena, groups apparently came from all over Europe. From the large mascot (species unidentifiable), to the American host whose trainers flashed different colours, the heat of the lights and the surround sound of chart pop mash-ups, the scene was set for Competition. Capital C.

The cavernous room smelt of fake-tan and there were 5 year olds wearing make up, pre-teens warming up in the corridors, and small armies of lycra-clad children looking slightly threatening as they walked by in unison.

The cheer groups (troupes? I never know) our girls are a part of are a little less regimented. A little less focussed on the trophy, on the prize. The coaches are young and not out for personal glory but keen to see the kids gain skills and have fun. There is no (obvious) make-up wearing and orange skin for our girls. No pack mentality.

Liberal and mainly middle-class we are.

We try to focus on the experience rather than the results. The joy of performing as a team, rather than the trophies.

Amy, my eldest was in the senior group, and Maddy, who is just ten, competed with the junior team.

Maddy performed first. They did great. She beamed from ear to ear throughout, relishing every moment on the floor.


Amy competed second and had a similar experience. Everyone was high as kites while we waited for the rest of the groups to perform.

Then came the judging.

And, in a moment, the World of Measurement* entered the arena. Suddenly having fun and doing your best was not enough. Now, for it to have been a good day, you had to be better than the other teams.

All the competitors from all the different troupes were sat together on the performance floor as the scores were read out.

Maddy’s group came 8th out of the 9 groups in her category.

Amy’s group came 1st out of the 8 groups in hers. They squealed and so did we. They collected the trophy and had their photograph taken.

There are many reasons why the seniors did better than the juniors, consistency of attendance at the weekly training sessions, older girls who were stronger and found it easier to remember the routine, and their group was smaller about 12 in total, as opposed to the 30 or so in Maddy’s group.

But all of this had become irrelevant, as was the euphoria Maddy had felt after performing, because now in her mind, she had failed compared to her sister’s triumphant win.

As one of the few parents with girls in both groups I had an evening of negotiating one daughter who was pleased as punch, and the other who was one step from despair.

Fun times.


And as I have thought back on this event I have been thinking about how this is a perfect example of the power of comparison.

It was almost impossible for my junior competitor to recall the enjoyment and excitement she had felt immediately after her performance. The World of Measurement had robbed her of this experience. Somehow knowledge of her sister’s result, had altered Maddy’s perspective and feeling about her performance.

Comparison is a time-travelling joy thief.

I wish this competitive element hadn’t affected her so much, but she is human, so it did.

As it probably would have for me, or anyone.

The world has been telling her time and again, explicitly and subconsciously, that it is best to win. Best to be top. Best to come first.

We don’t applaud the almost, the nearly, the not quite. We marvel at the spectacular, the audacious triumph, the hard-fought victory.

Why should she feel anything other than disappointment?

This is the world we live in. A world that esteems the strong and the smart, the clever and the brave, the beautiful, the fastest, the richest… the best. And although we know it is no good for us, we spend our days rating ourselves on an invisible scale, figuring out our place in things, and if we are higher or lower, better or worse, more or less worthy, than those we know.

We are cleverer than that friend, but not as thin as that one. We are more capable than that friend, but not as wealthy. We are braver than that friend but not as beautiful.

Like the fluctuations of the currency market, we are constantly jostling for position, trying to elevate ourselves, and if that means someone else has to take a place below us, so be it. We remain in the world of measurement.

But why? We know it is unhelpful, we know it causes anxiety and breeds animosity.

I wonder if it is because we are always looking to be accepted and to find a place to belong and we have believed the lie that says we will only be worthy, only find approval, if we are top, if we prove ourselves better than the rest.

The truth I have learnt the hard way is rather that if you are looking for acceptance from others it is your vulnerability and your willingness to be honest about your own weaknesses that enables true friendship.

It isn’t someone’s strength that draws us to them.

Someone who is always succeeding, might initially look appealing and like they have it all together, but unless you find places of true intimacy, true vulnerability, true connection, those relationships won’t remain, and if they do they will be superficial at best.

These ideas are big. They are dangerous and scary.

These ideas take a lifetime to learn.

For now, this little cheerleading parable is reminding me how important it is to be vigilant. To stand guard when comparison attempts to steal your joy.

I am preaching this to myself and trying to find ways to discover this with my children. There will always be someone more successful, more beautiful, more popular, but focussing on what they have is an irrelevance. Learning to remain in the present moment and enjoy it for all it can be, is a skill that needs learning and developing because the World of Measurement isn’t going away. We can choose not to play by it’s rules, not to be drawn into it’s popularity contest. But it is a reflex you have to fight for.


* The idea of the World of Measurement is fairly self-explanatory. I discovered the language to talk about this phenomenon in the fantastic book The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander.

  • Clare Russell-Jones
    Posted at 19:13h, 07 September Reply

    Love this! Comparison is just such a joy stealer! It always gets you stuck. makes you look in the wrong places for true joy. I love your honest and vulnerable turn of phrase!

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