Tips for Grads: Navigating unhealthy comparisons and competition

By Emily Azevedo-Casey, PhD student

Recently, I was at a networking event where an acquaintance shared exciting news about their new publication in a cool journal. While congratulating them, a little gnawing mixture of doubt, fear, and envy tried to creep in, saying, “I am so behind” and “I’ll never have that accomplishment.” When unchecked, these thoughts of comparison and competitiveness can leave a negative impression on you, your mental well-being, and your productivity. These thoughts can also be subtly communicated to your colleague through body language and facial expressions, reflecting insincerity, distrust, and unhealthy competition. And the longer you stay in that feeling, the worse the negativity toward yourself and others can grow. In this article, I will share three tips I use when dealing with the sneaky feelings that come when comparing yourself to others and unhealthy competitiveness.

  • Breathe and take care of yourself. If these feelings are starting to overwhelm you and take you out of the present moment, do what you need to do to attend to that without making it worse. Practice mindfulness. One of my favorite ways to do this in the moment is to observe and describe what is going on around me in as much detail as I can. How many people are in the room? What color shirt is the person next to me wearing?
  • Bring some perspective to the comparison. Comparing right off the bat only reveals a surface-level understanding of their journey. If you are comparing yourself to someone with a similar goal, transform this by asking questions about what resources helped them achieve this or if they made any sacrifices to get there.
  • Allow yourself the time it takes to achieve great things. Stand strong in the position that you are where you are in graduate school because you are a high achiever. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to reach goals by a certain timeline. Trust in the time it takes to reach your goals and don’t forget all the milestones along the way. Keep your focus on where you are and where you are going so that another’s achievement does not represent a personal detriment.

Try these strategies when or if the insidiousness of comparison and competition comes up for you. Remind yourself the only true comparison you can make is with an earlier version of you. This topic and the tips go hand in hand with a great piece by my colleague, Foram Gathia, on coping with imposter syndrome. When was the last time you felt the sting of comparison in graduate school?

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.