Comparing yourself to other people is a useful defense mechanism

Hello friendly people. I’m doing it! I’m writing a blog post! Feels like it’s been months. I’ve had a lot going on. My literary book sold to Feminist Press, which has made me really happy. They’re a great press, and it’s exciting that the book will be out there for people to read, but mostly I’m just happy to not be on submission anymore, as I was for most of 2022. I’ve worked on The Default World for at least four years at this point (the file says I started January 2018), and I’ll be happy to move on to something else. Not yet though, as I have at least six months of edits to do.

A major thank you is due to my agent, Christopher Schelling, who’s been great throughout this process—very receptive to my input and just a wonderful communicator and energetic agent. I always hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend an agent before they’ve sold a book for me, but now I can wholeheartedly recommend Christopher! He never ever lost faith in me or in the book.

I’m also about to sign a contract for another book—a nonfiction book—but details about that will pend the negotiation of a few details.

So it’s been a big year. I am pleased. Of course I’m stressed out and for the first time in my life I’m feeling imposter syndrome, but I’m definitely pleased.

For the last few years, I have (like most people) noticed that I’ve been having trouble focusing while reading books. I’ve covered this up by reading a lot of audiobooks, which don’t care if you’re focused or not, but some things don’t work well in audio. So recently I picked up a really cheesy self-help book called Hyperfocus, by a productivity expert. It contains tips and tricks on how to get you into “Hyperfocus” mode (minimize distractions before you sit down, set a timer, etc). Nothing revolutionary.

Anyway the book inspired me to adapt the Pomodoro technique for reading. What I decided was that I’d hide all my devices and set a 25 minute timer and just read. However I noticed very soon into attempting this that, while reading, I’d think of things that I needed to do, or notes I wanted to make. So instead of writing them in my phone, I started logging my stray thoughts in a journal and then going back to reading.

An unexpected outgrowth of this was that I noticed a lot of mental discomfort while I was reading my current book (which happened to be Chelsea Martin’s Tell Me I’m An Artist). This is a coming-of-age story about a working-class girl going to art school in SF, so it bears some resemblance to my literary novel. And, like most books these days, it was represented by an agent and acquired by an editor who’d both rejected my book. So it was natural that I’d feel envy and that I’d compare my book to this book.

But by logging these thoughts and moving past them, I realized how artificial these feelings are. There is quite literally no relationship between me and this book beyond the fact that I am enjoying reading it. Everything else is just a story I’m making up.

Over the course of a few days of this kind of logging, I started to learn how to put down all this weight I’d been carrying. For a while, it seemed almost too easy. All I needed was, poof, to not compare myself to people, and suddenly I could enjoy reading again! I tore through a dozen books over the course of a few days (many were recommendations, other literary books I’d steered clear of over the years because I envied their authors too much).

Then, as I started to revise my literary book, I noticed the catch. Suddenly I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. All I saw were its flaws and its failures.

And I suddenly realized, ahh, here’s why I compare myself: it’s a defense mechanism. I want to reassure myself that I’m better than these other writers, so my book is sure to succeed, etc. Or at least that it deserves to succeed—because the alternative, maybe it’s not good enough, means maybe I am not good enough. Maybe I don’t have enough worth.

So I was satisfied that re-learning how to read would be a complicated process—it wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed. Nonetheless, what’s true is that no story I tell myself about other writers is going to improve my work’s quality or its chances in the marketplace. My chance of success is totally separate from other peoples’. So all I get from this comparison is a temporary emotional relief. But the cost is that I can’t really enjoy reading my contemporary’s books. Recently, doing all this reading, I’ve seen how much fun reading can be!

I think ultimately I’ll just learn how to feel bad and anxious in a more measured way, but in the short term it’ll probably be a rocky transition as I lose that habitual defense mechanism. We’ll see!

Comments (



  1. Mark E Clemens

    Thanks Naomi.

  2. Lucy

    Love this! Honest and useful for me to read right now.

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