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.

Author: Jorah Lavin

I grew up in New England, moved to the Carolinas in '98 to start working at what was then a large regional bank and is now a really big nationwide bank. I work doing intranet content management and intranet site management. After work, I practice Aikido, knit, ride my motorcycle, read, watch movies & eat. I've been studying Aikido since 2014, and I ride an old Honda Shadow. Someday I want to go skydiving, and I am pretty sure that I want to hike the Appalachian Trail someday.