A woman looks out her window at the spring blossoms outside
Mental Health

Comparison culture: as we head out of lockdown, we need to embrace the Japanese concept of “oubaitori”

Worrying you need to look and feel a certain way by the end of lockdown? Then it’s time to embrace the Japanese concept of “oubaitori.”

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson shared his goal to effectively end lockdown on 21 June.

As the fourth stage of the government’s “road map” plan, the prime minister made it abundantly clear that this date is subject to review, as he is being driven by “data not dates.”

Despite this caveat, though, many have taken this idea of a social distancing-free world to heart, flooding Twitter and Instagram with jubilant quotes, their plans for summer 2021, and, of course, a flurry of memes

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A common theme among these posts? The idea that 21 June is now being used as a date for many to work towards, with an aim of bettering themselves before the UK gets back to normal (or as close to normal as it can).

I know how they feel, of course; I’ve been in lockdown for a year, and it feels – when I look at other people’s experiences via their social media feeds, at least – as if I’ve nothing to show for it.

I haven’t started running, learned a new language, or improved my baking skills. I haven’t been meditating, or mastered the five-minute plank, or improved my skincare routine. I haven’t even been taking lunchbreaks or going to bed at a decent time every night. 

Worst of all these realisations, though? The fact that I’ve been given just four months to rectify all of this and get myself to the same level as everyone else. 

Woman working on her laptop during the springtime.
“I find it hard not to compare myself to others during lockdown.”

Comparison, as ever, has proven itself to be the thief of joy; I should be over the moon that lockdown is ending, not worrying about my seeming lack of accomplishment over the past year.

It’s for this reason, then, that I’ve decided to embrace the Japanese concept of oubaitori wholeheartedly, in the hope that I’ll feel happier and more comfortable in my own skin as a result. 

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What is oubaitori?

As per Yamato, oubaitori (pronounced oh-buy-toe-ree) is “a Japanese idiom that comes from the kanji for the four trees that bloom in spring: cherry, plum, apricot and peach.”

“Each flower blooms in its own time and it’s a reminder that everyone is on their own journey through life.”

Essentially, then, this Japanese idiom means that people shouldn’t live their lives comparing themselves to others, but instead value their own unique traits and focus on their own growth. 

A photo of cheery blossoms blooming in springtime
Oubaitori is inspired by the four trees that blossom in the springtime.

Why is it important to embrace oubaitori?

“When you compare yourself to others you are only seeing things from your lens of experience, your perspective,” says psychotherapist Ruairi Stewart (aka The Happy Whole Coach).  

“You don’t have the full picture of the other person’s journey or the reality of their situation.”

He adds: “This is one reason social media can be such a trigger. People choose to share with others what they want to be seen, so it’s important not to judge yourself harshly when looking sideways at others, because you don’t have all the information.” 

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How can we practise the art of oubaitori for ourselves?

It can be hard to think of practical ways to apply an idiom or lifestyle concept to your life. However, Stewart has broken the art of oubaitori down into six easy steps.

1) Be aware of your self-talk and be kind to yourself

“Look at the types of thoughts that come up when you feel yourself going to that place of comparison,” he says.

“They aren’t serving you, they are usually self-critical and disempowering. You need to challenge these thoughts as soon as they creep up. Think about how you would challenge your best friend or loved one’s beliefs if they told you they were comparing themselves harshly to others.

“You would remind them of their strengths, so do this for yourself.” 

Young woman trying shirt on, hugging herself.
It’s important to shut down negative self-talk.

2) Stop talking negatively about yourself to others.

“Big yourself up!” insists Stewart.

“Take stock of your strengths and wins regularly, focus on cultivating kind self-talk and if you must compare anything, compare yourself now to a younger version of yourself who had yet to achieve all that you’ve now accomplished. Take pride in your growth and how far you’ve come and own your journey.”

When I take a moment to do this myself, it’s a wee while before my blank notebook begins to fill up with what I consider to be my ‘lockdown achievements’.

Once I get started, though, I soon realise that, by constantly comparing myself to others, I’ve ignored many of my accomplishments over the past year. Seriously, how on earth did I manage to forget the fact that I managed to pick up a red belt (and two new fringes) in Kung Fu during the social distancing phase of lockdown last year?

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3) Filter your social media

“Mute or unfollow the accounts that bring up a lot of comparison-driven thoughts or feelings within you,” urges Stewart.

“Being mindful of the media you consume is one way you can stop yourself falling into this comparison trap, especially given that social media is often an exaggerated form of reality.” 

4) Remind yourself you don’t have the full picture

“You’re probably not fully aware of a person’s journey, nor do you know if they are happy or fulfilled yet you judge yourself as a result of the conclusions you’ve come to,” says Stewart.

“You can’t compare your chapter five to someone else’s chapter 40. Comparison in this context is disempowering. People curate their lives on social media, they share what they want you to see – don’t let this define how you see yourself or measure your self-worth against it.” 

Woman relaxing in armchair listening to music with headphones and smart phone - stock illustration
Remember that people only share the best of themselves and their lives on social media.

5) Establish a gratitude practice

“Daily gratitude is a powerful way to shift your perspective from lacking to abundance, to be fully thankful for the positive things in your life,” promises Stewart.

“This helps shift your focus back onto you and what is going well, as opposed to looking at others and feeling you’re lacking, being judgmental or feeling inadequate. You’ll find there’s a lot to be thankful for in life if you stop and take note of it.”

Starting a gratitude journal is an excellent way to reflect on the big and small moments in your life that bring you joy. And studies have proven that they really do work; indeed, people who regularly practise gratitude have better physical and mental health, sleep better, and have higher levels of self-esteem, too. 

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6) Use the success of others as motivation

“If they can do it, then why can’t you?” reasons Stewart. “Naturally there may be barriers, hurdles and challenges to make things happen, but it doesn’t hurt to believe in yourself and have the motivation to strive for more.

“Use the achievements of others as motivation to spur yourself on, to believe in yourself, to strive for more, to work on yourself and your own personal development.

This is a good cue for you to focus on the things that really matter: making an impact, helping people, focusing on the kind of person you want to be and the lasting impression you want to make on people.

“Shift your perspective and find something you admire in others, be it their kindness, their work ethic, or their generosity, and focus on building this within yourself. These are all things that you can control. Where your attention goes, your energy flows, so try and use it for something positive and resourceful.” 

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