Feeling Overshadowed

I responded to the question “How does one stop feeling bad and overshadowed by everyone else?

“If you are learning something difficult, try not to compare your progress with that of other students. It doesn’t help you, and only fosters a false pride or a false discouragement.”

I wrote that statement a last year, while thinking about an incident that had happened a few weeks earlier. I had been training in a martial art for the last three years. I’ve been struggling, because I’m not naturally athletic, and I’m somewhat hapless and clumsy (and have been most of my life). I consider my progress to be slower than most students, and I’ve come close to giving up several times.

In early September last year, I traveled with our instructor and several other students to a weekend event in another state. At the event, I worked out with a person who was perhaps 15 years younger than I am, and based on how much they were struggling, I guessed that they had been practicing for six months or so.

While we were training we chatted quietly, introducing ourselves. I asked them how long they’d been at the training center, and they told me “six years.”

I was startled, but instantly had a feeling of pride that I was so much stronger in the art than they were, and in only about half the time. A few days later, I was thinking about this conversation and remembered a young woman who trained with us for a few weeks. This woman picked up everything she was taught almost instantly. Within three weeks of starting, she was doing better than I was. She remembered all of the techniques, her movements were fluid and well defined, and she never even seemed to be struggling. After less than two months, she stopped coming to class because the art didn’t interest her enough for her to work it into her busy schedule.

I remembered how discouraged I was when I had compared myself to her, for whom everything I struggled with came so easily.

That is when I realized how futile it is for me to compare myself with others. The fact that I am ‘better’ than one person, but not as skilled as another, doesn’t have any effect on my progress.

I don’t know what you are feeling overshadowed in, whether it’s something you’re learning, something you’re doing for work, some sort of sport, or whatever other activity, but let’s say it’s a topic you’re studying.

Think about these questions, and consider how you would answer them:

  1. Why are you studying this topic? (whatever it is you’re feeling overshadowed in). Is it to be “the best” at it, or is it for work, or for personal satisfaction? In my case, I realized that I’m studying this art for my own improvement. There are no awards for being better than anyone else. Even if there were, I’m not very competitive, so that wouldn’t interest me. When you’re tempted to compare yourself (which you are probably doing at some level, or you wouldn’t be using terms like “overshadowed by”), remind yourself of your true goal in studying the topic. It’s probably not to be “the best” (however you define that), so, honestly, why does it matter if someone else is better at it than you are?
  2. If no other person in the world knew you were studying this topic, would you keep studying it? Answering this question may help you understand your true motivation. If you’re secretly hoping for recognition, you may discover that recognition isn’t a good enough goal to keep you moving forward. Or you may discover that recognition isn’t really all that important, and that you have deeper motivations that will sustain you through the inevitable rough stretches everyone has when they’re learning something new.
  3. How would your life be different if you were no longer overshadowed by others? Would you feel more courageous, or more determined in your efforts, or would being on the top of the heap somehow help you learn faster?

At some point, it may occur to you, as it has to me, that comparing yourself to others doesn’t help you learn better or practice more. Say that you discover yourself in a group of ten others all studying the same topic. After comparing yourself, you realize you are the “top dog” among this group. The next day, you find yourself among another group, all of whom are better than you are. On day one, you feel strong and encouraged, but on day two you feel discouraged and beaten down. But guess what? You haven’t changed between day one and day two. Your skills weren’t better yesterday but somehow worse today.

The comparison hasn’t helped you improve. In fact, feeling overly adept yesterday might make you relax and stop trying because you’re clearly awesome, but on day two you might want to give up training forever, since you’re so bad compared to these paragons around you. If feeling overshadowed is making you glum, try your best to stop comparing, and just focus on showing up and practicing with focus.

I won’t pretend to understand what drives people like top athletes to be the best in the world. I’m not interested in being “the best” at anything, and I’m not sure how my quality of life would be better if someone declared me to be “the best” at something.

If you are willing to consider my advice, it would be this: find something to do that gives you personal satisfaction and dive into it. Do it for its own sake, for your own sake, and because you love it, not because you can be better than someone else at it.

I suggest to you that if you adopt this attitude, of doing things because they are interesting, or fun, or challenging, you’ll have a happier, more satisfying life than if you spend your time worrying about how you compare with others.

How can I begin exercising at home?

I responded to this question: “If I can’t even do a single push-up, how can I begin exercising at home?

I’m going to assume that you are in relatively good health and don’t have any physical limitations like injuries. Please check with a doctor before you start any exercise plan if you have any doubts about your health.

If even kneeling push-ups are too hard, start with push-ups off of a wall. Just face a wall, at arm length or slightly further. Put your hands on the wall, at about shoulder height. Lean toward the wall, slowly bending your arms, until your face is an inch or so from the wall, then push away until your arms are only slightly bent. Repeat. Do two or three sets a day. Once these seem too easy, you can try doing incline push-ups on a raised surface such as a stairway or sturdy bench.

You can also start out by building up your overall strength. Learn to do things like:

  • planks,
  • side planks,
  • body-weight lunges,
  • squats (you don’t have to do a full squat to start getting benefits), and
  • calf lifts (facing the stairway, stand with your toes on the edge of the first step, and slowly raise and lower yourself)

Once you feel a little stronger, you can add rowing-type exercises to strengthen your back. Find a pole or small tree or sturdy doorknob and wrap an old towel around it. Grasp the towel and lean back, straightening your arms, then pull yourself slowly forward. Do everything slowly to avoid injury.

Eventually you’ll be able to start doing push-ups and can think about adding chin-ups and on and on… hundreds of body-weight exercises to keep you fit and help you become stronger.

What is a great example of coincidence?

In the early 1980s, I was hitchhiking from Massachusetts to Virginia to attend a wedding. My brother dropped me off at the junction of the Mass Pike and route 495 that morning, and, about ten minutes later, a trucker picked me up. I rode with him all the way to Baltimore… a great first ride.

More than two weeks later, after visiting Virginia, Illinois, and Wisconsin, I was hitchhiking home and my ride dropped me off after sunset at the junction of 495 and the Mass Pike. Getting rides after dark is almost impossible, so I was facing sleeping out or walking 15 miles home.

While standing there by the side of the highway, thinking through my options, I was startled, and jumped straight up in the air when a truck hit the brakes so hard the tires smoked and the truck looked like it was about to jackknife. After the truck stopped a few yards from me, I ran up to the passenger side and opened the door; there was my friend from the first day of my trip. It turned out that he lived about a mile from my house and he dropped me off right at the end of my street. He was so stunned that he had given me both the first and last ride of my trip that he couldn’t stop exclaiming about it during the drive.

Nevertheless, he could not have been any more astonished than I was, and it still stands out in my mind as one of the most impressive coincidences of my life.