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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?