Cut the comparisons

Theodore Roosevelt famously said that “comparison is the thief of joy”. But it’s human nature to compare ourselves with others, and is sometimes unavoidable in dance where we are confronted with the images and abilities of others in evaluative situations and in the mirror. So how do we operate in a world of comparison without always feeling like we come up short?

There are different ways of looking at comparison but I’m going to write about it from the perspective of Achievement Goal Theory (Nicholls, 1984, 1987), a mainstream psychological theory about motivation in achievement contexts. The theory is based on the idea that we are motivated to demonstrate high ability, or to avoid demonstrating low ability. It is about how we judge our ability or competence and whether we do this with reference to ourselves, or with reference to others. These judgements influence a whole host of other factors including how we understand success and failure, how we perceive ourselves, the extent to which we believe we have control over our abilities and competence, and even on our wellbeing.

How do you judge your ability?

According to Achievement Goal Theory, when we judge our ability with reference to ourselves, we are more task orientated. This means that we are motivated to meet our own goals related to the task at hand, to progress in relation to our previous performances, and by the belief that effort and hard work lead to success. We are likely to choose moderately difficult but realistic tasks because we know that we can achieve these goals when we try hard, and are more persistent in the face of challenges. As a result, we experience increases in self-confidence and satisfaction when we meet our goals, and have relatively low anxiety levels because we have an understanding of our unique ability and what we need to do in order to improve.

Contrast this with an ego orientation. When we are more ego orientated, we judge our ability relative to others. We are motivated by social status and recognition; a desire to be the best, to have our superiority acknowledged. We feel especially good when we’re the best without even having to try very hard. But this means that our understanding of our ability is entirely dependent on the people around us, so we tend to choose goals that are either easy for us to meet, or that are so difficult that nobody would expect us to achieve them. Doing so – choosing very easy or too-difficult goals – helps us to preserve our sense of self by allowing us to show our abilities, but it comes at a cost. It means we don’t progress as quickly as we could, because we aren’t motivated by a true desire to improve or focus on the task at hand, but simply by the desire to be better than others. And ego orientations only make us feel good when we’re the best in the class, audition or performance. When we’re not, it can be very difficult to deal with and can increase our anxiety levels, give rise to perfectionistic tendencies, and undermine our self-confidence.

Task and ego orientations in action

Imagine two dancers have auditioned for a particular role and neither were successful.

One dancer is highly task orientated. She might think, “I didn’t get the part, and while I’m disappointed I’m satisfied with my performance and I really nailed that difficult section”. Provided this dancer tried her best, she can be satisfied with her audition performance and therefore remain confident in her abilities. She is still motivated to keep trying because she achieved her own goal of getting the difficult section right. And, although she is disappointed, she still feels in control of her progress because her sense of her ability is dependent on her own unique performance in that moment, not in comparison to the other dancers in the audition.

The second dancer is highly ego orientated. She might think, “I didn’t get the part, the other dancers were so much better than me. I’m a failure, I might as well give up”. This dancer’s sense of competence has been undermined: even though she tried her best she is not satisfied with her performance because she believes she was worse than everyone else. She feels less in control of her progress because her sense of ability is dependent on the performance of the other dancers in the audition; as a result her motivation is lower and she is less likely to audition again in order to avoid another ‘failure’.

Now it’s worth nothing that nobody is either strictly task or ego orientated: we have levels of both in most situations, but it’s the dominant one that will have the biggest impact on our motivation and wellbeing. So, which orientation would we rather hold?

Shifting our orientations

It is entirely possible to shift our orientations; research has demonstrated that goal orientations can indeed change over time. And while we can’t necessarily stop comparing ourselves with others completely, we can do so in a more compassionate way that minimises negative effects on our feelings, motivation, and sense of self. Here are four key principles that can help to develop a task orientation and minimise an ego orientation.

1. Set and monitor task-based goals. Choose something that you want to focus on in a particular exercise or class. It might be based on what a teacher or director is asking of you, on previous feedback, or on your own ideas. Really try to stay focused on this goal. You can use the SMART goal worksheet to help you with this. When you have achieved your goal (and you need to identify how you will know when you’ve achieved it), set another one. Keep setting goals and you will find that not only are you better able to keep the focus on your own performance rather than compare it with that of others, but you are also better able to recognise your progress and feel good about yourself.

2. Understand that effort and hard work lead to success. Setting goals will help you to see this principle in action. But investigate your own thoughts and beliefs, too: what does success mean to you? Do you assume that some of your peers “just have what it takes” while you don’t? Do you believe that some dancers are simply born talented or have natural abilities that are superior to yours? While we are born with certain characteristics that we cannot control – height, for example – most elements of ability in any domain are developed through practice and hard work. Effort is key here because it’s under our control. Try to shift some of your thinking around this.

3. See other dancers as collaborators rather than competitors. You probably have a number of peers or colleagues who you enjoy working with, but may see other dancers as your rivals. Try to remove this competitive element and understand that everyone is doing their best and can learn from each other. Instead of feeling envious or intimidated by others, ask yourself: what do I admire about these dancers? What can I learn from them? And, for a confidence boost, consider: what can they learn from me? I also suggest trying to reduce the amount of time you spend looking in the mirror in class or rehearsal. Use your internal body sense (proprioception) to try to feel what you need to do, and remove your focus from your external appearance in relation to other dancers.

4. Re-think how you view mistakes. Mistakes are brilliant! They help us to understand the mechanics of an exercise, and teach us how to problem-solve. But sometimes we become afraid of making mistakes and looking like we are ‘failing’ in front of others. Ask yourself: what have you learned from making mistakes in the past? If you did make a mistake, what would be the worst-case scenario – and how likely is that to happen? How can mistakes push you to become better?

Get your joy back!

If you can focus on yourself and your own goals, and use other dancers for information or inspiration, you will experience positive effects on your motivation, progress, and wellbeing. Developing a task orientation and minimising an ego orientation takes time and practice, but it is so worth it. Cut the comparisons and get your joy back!

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to know more, check out my Understanding and Enhancing Motivation course.

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