I didn’t grow up with social media so I didn’t have to contend with that environment throughout those years when I felt most vulnerable and impressionable but I definitely still compared myself to my peers and innumerable others. Comparing yourself to others makes a lot of sense in some ways but unfortunately it can get totally out of hand and end up as a source of deep anxiety, stress, and downright unhappiness.
Why Do We Compare Ourselves To Others?
Comparing yourself to others has strong evolutionary roots. Consider tribal life in ancient times. Knowing who was strongest in a certain domain was important for others who needed to emulate that person and develop similar skills. If you’re a member of a hunter gatherer tribe and you want to become more accurate with a spear, you want to know who to learn from. Comparing ourselves to others presumably also helped us determine where we needed to focus our efforts and attention in order to develop skills that would best serve and contribute to the tribe as a whole.
I compare myself to others a lot and sometimes that’s really helpful for me. I want to know how well I’m doing at something so I look for some metric against which to measure myself. Often I’m measuring against another person who is doing similar things. I’m a runner and I’m interested in becoming a faster, stronger runner. I look at other female runners who are around my age and look at how they train and how fast they run and, yes, I look at how I rank in comparison. My intention behind the comparison is to get better and be the best runner I can be in the context of my current life priorities. That’s the intention, but sometimes I can slip down a dark rabbit hole.
The Dark Side Of Comparing Ourselves To Others
It is no accident that when you spend a prolonged period of time passively scrolling your instagram feed you could end up feeling pretty awful. We typically compare ourselves with people we most closely identify with and also those in our personal sphere. When I look at other runners for example I don’t feel bad because I don’t have the stats or physique of marathon rockstar and world record holder Brigid Kosgei. The danger zone is if I see someone who is in my social sphere or with whom I closely identify, who is doing better than I am and they are doing better in a domain that I really value and care about. So in my example that would be a friend or acquaintance or someone in my age range, in similar life circumstances, who is cruising to the marathon finish line comfortably under the 4 hour mark – sigh!
There are a number of studies in this field that show that we’re much more likely to experience uncomfortable emotions in relation to this combination; people who we claim similarities with or who are part of our social sphere, who are outperforming us in a highly valued life domain. These valued life domains could be wealth, professional success, appearance, relationships, health etc. We compare both upwards and downwards. When I recognize that I have something in common with someone I admire it may give a boost to my self-esteem. But when I focus only on the gap between where they are in contrast to myself, that will most likely trigger a spiral of unhelpful thoughts that leave me questioning myself, my worth, and my abilities. It’s exhausting and depressing!
Downward comparisons operate similarly. I can compare myself to someone and distinguish myself from them by how more proactive or hardworking I am and thereby bolster my sense of self. The flip side however is that I may dwell on similarities I share with someone I dislike or don’t rate very highly. I could then begin to feel my sense of self diminished and soon find myself lost in thoughts of inadequacy and insurmountable obstacles. Our comparison habit seems to be inescapable and amplified by the social media ecosystem. We know so much about so many people now that the triggers are omnipresent. How can we learn to navigate this terrain then and maintain some semblance of sanity and emotional well-being?!
5 Strategies To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
So we’ve learnt that there is an evolutionary rationale behind our comparison habit and that there are elements of the habit that can enhance or sense of well-being. However we’ve also seen that whether we compare up or down our sense of self-worth is highly vulnerable and conditional based on where we place our focus. Rather than having to police ourselves to protect a fragile sense of self let me share a number of powerful strategies that have helped me and others to escape the constant comparison trap and in the process forge a stronger more resilient sense of self.
1 Reframe The Inner Narrative
Our minds are meaning-making machines and like to tell us engaging stories. When we compare ourselves with others we are telling a story with competition as its theme. So who is telling the story to whom? We tell it to ourselves. So I can choose a different theme that serves me rather than distresses and depletes me. How about reframing the story from a competition theme to a contribution theme? If I choose to see myself as competing with others I can instead choose to see myself as connected to others, making my own unique contribution, at my pace, and within the context of my personal life situation.
If I reframe and focus on connection, I can choose to celebrate and cheerlead those in my social sphere who are doing well in areas I care about. I can reach out to them and ask for their support and advice at times. I can look for learning and growth opportunities. To reframe effectively you need to notice when you’ve fallen into the “Comparison Trap” and pause to create some space from the triggered thought spirals. I find that simply saying to myself, “I notice my mind is in a comparison trap”, works to interrupt the cascading thoughts and create the space to reframe. Next I often ward off the lurking self-judgement with some gentle self-validation, “It’s really easy to get caught up in these sorts of thoughts particularly when I’m feeling tired and haven’t had the best day”.
Finally the actual reframe brings me in touch with my values and what matters most to me. “Life isn’t a competition or a race”, is a statement that reflects my values. Expressing my values in this well creates the reframe. Another example that I use is; “There is abundance and opportunity all around and I wish success, fulfillment and happiness for others as well as myself.” What statements might you use in these circumstances?
Disconnecting from the draining compare and contrast thoughts, releasing the theme of competition and instead embracing a theme that serves me (and reflects my values such as connection, contribution, growth or learning) acts as a reset for my emotional state.
2 Clarify The Function
When I used to regularly fall into comparing myself with others I noticed that I never asked myself a very simple yet powerful question; “Why am I comparing myself to this person?” I know that sounds crazy as I write it but I really just got lost in the thoughts and ceded all power over the situation. It was like the thoughts came up and brought the uncomfortable emotions with them and all of this was happening to me and I just had to wait it out or distract myself in the hopes that it would dissipate. A quote from Carl Jung gave me a jolt that really resonated with me and it was this:
Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
So I began to ask myself this simple question and force myself to answer it. “What is the purpose of this comparison?” I approached it with curiosity wondering how it served me because there had to be some payoff (there’s always a payoff!) for this obsessive self-comparison? For me there were a few key insights that came from this inquiry that guided me towards a behavior shift. Firstly I was telling myself the story that I was using the comparison for motivation. Sound familiar? Unfortunately it rarely, if ever, motivated me. Instead it typically left me feeling like crap and I’d end up distracting myself from that uncomfortable feeling, escaping into something mindless and unchallenging .
Another key insight for me was that I often compared myself to people who had a lot more experience in an area than I did. I would then turn on myself, belittle whatever I had achieved so far as “not good enough”, and start telling myself the “give up now/it’s a sign” story. It was like it got me off the hook in a way. I could retreat and not try anymore and avoid failure and all the scary shit that surrounded the thought of that. Hmm… yes, it’s important to clarify the function and the pay-off for comparing ourselves to others. I believe that this is a really powerful and essential step. Ignore it and you’ll end up right back here later.
3 Measure What Matters
I find that it’s much easier to get lost in a comparison trap when we’re not clear on our own path and what matters to us. I’ve wasted a lot of time passively consuming news and content from other people whilst ignoring my own creative impulses. Then I’m measuring myself against these others and feeling deflated and not energized to take any action which is an utterly self-defeating cycle. What matters to you? What do you want to be about in this one life you have? These big questions can’t be ignored if we want to find meaning, purpose and fulfillment in our lives.
I found myself almost in a trance as an observer of others and forgot that I too was a player in the game of life and no less a player than anyone I was watching. When I say measure what matters I mean put the spotlight of your attention back on yourself and focus on what makes you unique and what you want to contribute to the world. When our focus is on building a life of purpose and meaning we can measure our progress and our growth on that pathway as a positive comparison. I am then looking at how far I’ve come rather than where someone else is on their path and ranking myself on some imagined worthiness scale.
I think that when you get clear on exactly what you want from your own life it is infinitely easier to notice others and their successes and feel inspired rather than threatened or diminished by that. It’s a recognition that I am the central character in my life and owning that fully. Doing that allows me to concentrate on continuous learning, growth, and improvement and measuring that in a way that enhances my well-being and energizes me to contribute to my maximum potential uninhibited by the depleting distraction of comparing myself to others.
4 Connect And Contribute
Studies have shown that when we contribute on social media, rather than passively consuming our feeds, we are less likely to be negatively impacted. Comparing ourselves to others isn’t limited to our social media behavior but as it is a significant contributor it’s worth taking these findings into consideration. We are wired for connection yet there is an epidemic of loneliness. Technology offers the promise of connection and yet research shows that social media use is tied to loneliness, with 73% of very heavy social media users considered lonely, as compared with 52% of light users. This NPR article provides more detail on recent studies in this area.
Forming and maintaining strong social bonds is essential for our emotional well-being. Comparing ourselves to others often disconnects us and causes us to retreat within as we ruminate and self-judge. However when we seek out and nourish relationships built on contribution and support, we can significantly reduce our susceptibility to the constant comparison with others. I find that when I am connected with others I am less likely to fall prey to the comparison and self-judgement. If I do fall into a comparison trap at least I have a healthy outlet in my community to reach out and share the struggle and ask for support. I belong to a number of networks of women where there’s always someone to offer the validation and support I need.
If you don’t have a community you can connect with already check out your local community for resources or search on meetup.com which I’ve always found to be a great resource. I belong to a number of online communities and highly recommend Carrie Green’s female entrepreneur association where I’ve been a member for several years. Whatever your particular area of interest I bet there is a community of like minded folks you can connect with and it starts with a simple google search. Find your people and start connecting and contributing!
5 Foster Gratitude And An Abundance Mindset
I know you have probably read about gratitude everywhere and it seems to be promoted as the answer to all our psychological ills. I once bought a gratitude journal in Target that was entitled “OK, Fine I’m Grateful!” which summed up my attitude at the time to the gratitude movement. It was everywhere and I was resistant. It works though…what can I say?! When I focus on what’s going well and what I do have and have achieved, my mindset shifts. Gratitude has an energy to it that feels like a gentle hand on the heart that shifts me out of a mindset of lack and “not good enough” to a place of peace and fulfillment.
I think gratitude goes hand in hand with an abundance mindset. I always find when I am in the comparison trap that my vision field has narrowed dramatically and my focus is on lack and on what I haven’t done or achieved. The abundance mindset is really the opposite and it is like taking the blinkers off and embracing possibilities. It’s about believing that what is meant for me is coming to me. It’s about looking at life from the perspective that someone else’s success and happiness doesn’t subtract from the bounty of the Universe. With that mindset I think it’s easier to genuinely celebrate the accomplishments and good fortune of others, or at least reset quickly if we find ourselves descending into unhelpful thoughts comparing ourselves harshly to others.
These are practices and so it takes time to redirect our thoughts in this direction in the presence of the discomfort that we may feel when we hear or see someone else attaining that which we too would like to attain. Keep a gratitude journal and start noting down just 3 things daily that you’re grateful for and soon you’ll have a repository of feel good treasure to dig into when you sense the discomfort. Foster your abundance mindset by connecting with some abundance mantras that resonate with you. Mindvalley has a great blog on this in the area of wealth and prosperity that might be a good starting point.
Comparing ourselves to others is normal and natural and has evolutionary roots. If the comparisons you’re making are tending toward negative self-judgement, causing you distress, and distracting you from engaging fully in creating and enjoying a life abundant in purpose and meaning then it’s time to put the strategies above into practice. If you’d like more tips and tools to build your self-confidence and create a life you love, sign up to my email list here.