“Comparisonitis” is the phenomenon of comparing yourself negatively to others; feeling that your life, love, work, holidays, house, or just the tidyness of your undersink cupboard, just aren’t as good as someone else’s.
Earlier this month, I found myself in a room of 50 professional photographers at the SHOOT EDIT CHAT REPEAT LIVE podcast event. If you don’t know about it already, SHOOT EDIT CHAT REPEAT is a fabulous podcast hosted by photographers Vicki Knights and Eddie Judd.
The event began with a keynote speech from Lucy Sheridan, “the world’s first and only comparison coach”. Photographers seem to be very susceptible to the curse of comparisonitis. Lucy asked if anyone felt that they don’t feel they suffer from it, and only two people in the room raised their hands!
Long before social media existed, Teddy Roosevelt’s coined the phrase “Comparison is the thief of joy.” So is it simply inevitable? But it was that day that I had the following realization. Partly by accident and partly by intention, since starting my photography, I’ve learned small antidotes for comparisonitis.
#1. It’s Not New. It Just Got Bigger. Much Bigger.
Around 1983, there was an odd craze in my school playground for sticker collections — stay with me here…
Each day I’d compare my stickers with my classmates’ collections. The most valued items in our school playground were the round scratch-and-sniff stickers, which seemed very exotic with American smells — root beer, pretzel, and candy cane. I only had a few scratch-and-sniff in my collection, which had been scratched so much they didn’t really smell anymore! So I was completely envious of friends with a large collection of pristine scratch-and-sniff stickers, obtained from weekend trips to the legendary “Apple Tree” toyshop in the next town.
Every child naturally compares themselves — and perhaps their sticker collection — with their peers.
During primary school, it might be with the other 25 children in your class. Then at high-school and university, the number increases as your social circle and the number of people you encounter widens.
In the 1990s, if it hadn’t come up explicitly in conversation, I wouldn’t know if my work colleague was married, where they lived, or where they went on holiday. Meeting up with a friend, I would probably find out what they did that weekend, but I probably wouldn’t see any evidence of the amazing outfit they wore to a wedding recently or their luxury lodge they had for a recent skiing holiday.
But since the arrival of Facebook and then Instagram, I would probably learn all that information within 10 seconds.
Things I never would have known without social media — and let’s be honest — stuff I don’t really need to know. It’s easy to see how comparisonitis develops from there.
The number of comparisons we are exposed to has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, that it’s no surprise that we are still getting to grips with how to deal with this in a healthy way.
#2. There is No Top to the Photography Mountain
I’ve been obsessed with photography since I got a film SLR camera at age 11. All through my teens, my only comparison would be other friends’ photos — and none of my friends loved photography, so they were really snapshots — plus occasional visits to photography exhibitions, such as Ansel Adams.
As an adult, I had subconsciously labeled myself as “a good photographer”. It was just a hobby at first, and I didn’t fully understand my camera, and I now cringe at many of those photos, but I didn’t know any different so I was blissfully ignorant!
I was happy. I loved photography and loved my photos.
Starting my business changed all that. I researched my competition, what other people were doing, their style, composition, and editing. This soon sucked all the joy out of the thing I had always loved.
This would only worsen with the more I learned about the industry, the more great photographers I discovered online, and the more success I saw in other people’s businesses.
If “being the best you can be” is the top of the mountain, the harsh lesson you will learn is that you will always be climbing. Always trying to reach the top.
I thought I was near the top when I started my business, but it was all an illusion of blissful ignorance. I quickly felt I was right at the bottom and there was vertical rock face reaching up to the sky.
Sometimes the further you go, the further out of reach it appears to be. Some other times you realize you’re higher up than you thought. But most of the time it’s just a winding path, going generally upwards from where you were before.
So when you compare yourself with someone else, don’t imagine they are at the top of the mountain and you’re at the bottom, we’re all just slowly trudging upwards.
#3. Say Hello to Your Competitors
In the early days of my business, in early 2012, I was reading a blog post on Clickin Moms which suggested that rather than worry about your competition you should reach out and say “hello”. After all, the blog pointed out, they love photography just like you, so you have lots in common, right?
I must have been in a particularly outgoing mood that day — maybe I’d had a chocolate brownie — because very uncharacteristically, I decided to take this advice and message a competitor. The first one to come to mind was a local photographer whose photography I was most jealous of, who was far more artistic and emotional in her work than me. She clearly had a successful business, great blog posts, and from her profile picture looked skinny and beautiful (and ANNOYINGLY stylish).
Photographers are particularly prone to this rivalry with competitors. We constantly critique our own work, and because the value is subjective, there is nothing to say whether we are right or wrong. I doubt that accountants are jealous of the set of accounts a competitor has completed.
Anyway, I sent that email. And I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say it changed my life, and as it happens it was also a major antidote to my comparisonitis.
That photography competitor was Charlotte Palazzo of Charlotte Palazzo Photography. We met at a local cafe, and at the time she was just about to move to the same village as us. So although we are even closer competitors now, surprisingly we have also become close friends.
She was the best woman and photographer at my wedding. We now go on summer holidays together every year, and yes we talk about photography A LOT. As well as photography, we also share a love of Nutella, wine, and true crime podcasts. Last year, we both switched from Nikon (me) and Canon (Charlotte) over to Sony system… on the same day!
There’s a solidarity, rather than a rivalry, that can be created from knowing other photographers. We’re all sometimes making mistakes and sometimes having success, and we all love photography.
#4. Recognize Your Own Confirmation Bias
As soon as Charlotte and I were friends, I realized she was normal — shocker right? I can now be objective and see that she’s more artistic than me, but I’m more technical. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But online, you’ll only see one side.
A stranger online can seem superhuman. They are a photographer who doesn’t take a single bad photo. They are the perfect mum. They have a stylish family home that’s always tidy.
Guess what, these things don’t really exist. They are all just a product of confirmation bias.
You have a core belief about these people and you pay attention to everything that confirms that belief while unwittingly ignoring anything that doesn’t support the belief. The bias that you are seeing often says something about the sensitive-spots in your life.
Lucy Sheridan, the comparison coach at SHOOT EDIT CHAT REPEAT LIVE, talked us through a guided meditation about “our perfect day”. And what was clear was that the differences in my perfect day — different to my life right now — are the same things I’m prone to suffer “comparisonitis” about.
The aspects of your life that you aren’t happy with are those that will be hit strongest with comparisonitis. That is a clue you need to work on that and comparison won’t help you.
I would like a tidier interior-designed house, I’d like to feel confident going to every shoot. I’d like to be the weight I was before I had children. The images that affect me when I see them on Instagram (above) would tend to be those that relate to my sensitive-spots, feeding the “comparisonitis”.
Everything in the pink area is what grabs your attention.
If you are going through a divorce, of course you will notice all the PDA posts from schmaltzy couples. If you aren’t happy with your weight, you’ll notice that everyone seems to be thin and fit. Those doubting their ability to make money will see all their competitors are having huge success.
But in reality, there’s plenty of rubbish stuff going on.
Terrible photos. Selective color. Comic sans. Clients that book with someone else. A mum with a child having a tantrum in the supermarket. Miserable family days out.
You’re just not seeing them. Even if they are posted online, your confirmation bias will mean you subconsciously ignore them.
#5. Meeting People will Crush Your Comparisonitis
Wouldn’t you like to turn that toxic envy of other people into something healthy?
Since meeting Charlotte in 2012, I’ve discovered that the more photographers I meet, the less envy I feel. Because getting to know someone, wakes you up from your confirmation bias.
In 2015, I saw on Instagram that a photographer I followed, Aurelie of Little Toad Photography had moved from Australia to a town just 10 miles away from me. We hadn’t spoken before — I couldn’t even remember where I first saw her work — but again I contacted her, simply thinking she might want someone to talk photography with!
On paper, we are complete opposites. She’s a laid-back, DM-wearing, Australian rock-girl, earth-mother. I’m a super-anxious, spreadsheet-loving, nerdy, British introvert. Had I not met her in person, I would have assumed that we nothing in common. But actually we’re now business partners, running a business together (Playground Portraits). We work incredibly well together, with each knowing our different strengths.
We each also have a family photography business and are competitors in this realm. Had we not met up I know I would be feeling envious of the clients that she gets and the photos she takes for her family business, but as I can see a real person behind the business, instead I’m happy for her! There are plenty of clients to go around, and being objective I know some will suit her better, and some will suit me better.
The mantra is “community over competition,” and it really is the key to a cure.
Community was the thinking behind Vicky and Eddy’s podcast SHOOT EDIT CHAT REPEAT. And when traveling down to the event on the train together, Charlotte made an observation that for those people we have met and chatted with through events, conventions and trade shows, we don’t suffer the same comparisonitis as for those who are still just strangers online.
It’s far easier to be happy for the success of someone you know, than for someone you don’t.
Sometimes you don’t even need to meet. A friendly conversation online, whether it’s started with a compliment about their business or a question about a lens, is often enough to make that person real and help cure yourself.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed so many photography events and chances to meet others in the industry, including Vicki Knight’s 3-day business retreat, SWPP seminars, training days, as well as local photographer meetups organized on Facebook.
Had I sat in my office instead — as the introvert within me would probably prefer to do — all those people I met would still be strangers.
For me, the more photographers I meet, the more objective I become.
In discussing different ideas and strategies for both photography and business, the more reassurance I can get that I’m on the right track, quietening the nagging doubt that is the root of comparisonitis.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fully cured. Sometimes I need to refresh my brain on this. I’ve known the lovely Belinda Grant, since attending Vicki’s Delight Retreat in late 2016. At the S.E.C.R event we were chatting and I confessed to her that I realized I was somewhat guilty of comparisonitis when I read her lovely tributes she puts on Facebook about her husband.
“Don’t be silly!” She admonished me, “We’re only normal and have plenty of rows like everyone else!”.
Reminding me again, that the only thing that’s perfect is the fairytale construct in your own head.
#6. Compare You with You
If you want to compare, compare yourself against the “old you” and I am pretty sure you will be delighted!
I feel acute embarrassment looking back at those photos I took years ago. I was just setting up my business, and of course I thought I was near the top of the photography mountain. I had been to some Nikon training about studio lighting, and having a successful family business, and I’d learned how to use my camera in Manual mode. So surely I didn’t have much more to learn?
Help — my eyes are bleeding!
In searching for these photos that I hadn’t seen for years for this article, I was astounded. I’ve always hated selective color — or so I thought — and had no memory of doing this myself.
I’m thankful I’ve also left behind my misguided belief that I had to use studio lights for EVERYTHING, even when photographing a newborn in somebody’s small living room.
It’s a long journey slowly uphill, with many small changes bringing you to where you are now.
Many of you reading this will probably also have photos showing your journey through an obsession with vintage-style presets, and heavy-handed saturation and contrast. Equally, we have all made odd business decisions, such as supplying the client with the same photo in 5 different editing styles (guilty!).
We might look back on these as bizarre, and unfathomable. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight. The healthy comparison is to see here is how far I have come, how much I have learned, how I’ve trained my eye.
How much I’m thankful to be here and not back there!
#7. Be Okay with Your Imperfections
Comparisonitis is fuelled by this fairytale “perfect life”. We tend to share things that make your life look perfect because that’s what we are seeing. So our social media feeds are a constant stream of the perfect.
I think the older you get, the easier it is to show yourself as imperfect. You begin to worry less about what people think of you. Since reaching my 40s, I’m slowly trying to let go of this lifelong anxiety.
As parents, we tell our children to be honest and not just follow the crowd. It’s difficult but sometimes we need to take that advice ourselves.
Occasionally I’ll put a photo of myself on social media – even though I’m still not happy with my weight. I’ll admit it, I hate dancing. For years I went clubbing because I thought friends would think I wasn’t cool otherwise. Well maybe I’m not very cool, but that’s fine.
Maybe I’m a bit geeky. I’m rubbish at cooking. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for nearly all of my adult life. I’m terrible in the mornings, have no clue about fashion, and I drive my husband crazy with my difficulty in making decisions.
Surprise! I’m not perfect!
Just as meeting people makes us more objective, I wonder if after reading that last paragraph you can be more objective about me.
Nothing is absolute. People might seem to have it all worked out the day they take that selfie – but a complete mess the next.
Remember how I said that before I met her, I had noticed that Charlotte was ANNOYINGLY STYLISH?
All I gotta say is #STYLEGOALS
About the author: Ellie Cotton is a family and commercial photographer based in North West England. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cotton’s work on her website and blog. This article was also published here.