Comparison is the thief of joy. And confidence. Creativity. Motivation. Resilience. Income. Productivity and self-esteem. And it’s swift too, like a shark. All it takes is someone richer/thinner/more successful/with a baby/in a big car/publishing a book/having sex/on holiday and comparison can trigger a whole load of judgmental and negative narratives swoop in and attack. The desire for acceptance and belonging is very natural for humans but when we compare ourselves negatively that isn’t what’s happening. We might tell ourselves that we’re looking for ways to make us better people so that others will like us more. But actually all we’re usually doing is validating negative beliefs about ourselves and what we’re capable of.
Why do we do it?
Comparison is partly natural – at least, in the sense of wanting what other people have. Children often steal each other’s toys, for example. And one study at Emory University found that monkeys would happily exchange their stones for cucumbers – until they saw other monkeys getting grapes. And then the cucumber wasn’t good enough anymore. What’s odd about comparison is that it means we stop looking at the inherent value of something on its own (like cucumber) and only at its value alongside something else (like grapes). There’s no reason for one to be more appealing than the other except that someone else has it. Another interesting study found that when it comes to how much we earn, it’s not the actual amount that we earn that determines how satisfied we feel but how this compares to our friends.
Comparison is ‘taught’ from an early age
Look at the culture we live in, the political system we have and the combative global media. It’s often a case of one vs the other and toxic narratives around being better than others are entrenched from an early age. If you’re female then there’s a whole other level of comparison because there’s so much focus on aging, slimness, fertility etc. Have you ticked the boxes of other women your age? The idea that there is only one way to be ‘successful’ is applied more frequently to women. We might see it as totally acceptable for men to be single, work-focused or child free, for example, but women who do it are ‘on-the-shelf,’ not fulfilling their natural potential or a cold career bitch. In professional spaces inequality can mean that there doesn’t seem to be enough room for all women so the few places that exist must be fiercely fought for – this encourages even more comparison among women who are trying to succeed.
How to stop the comparison cycle
It’s actually not that easy to stop comparing yourself to other people. It can feel surprisingly addictive when the negative thoughts you have about yourself are validated by someone else doing better than you. That sounds strange as why would we ever welcome anything that validates negative self beliefs but we do. There can be a certain satisfaction in “well I knew I’d never find anyone to love me” or “I’ve always known I was too worthless to be a parent.” If you’ve internalised negative core beliefs about yourself and your worth, comparison is a potent source of fuel for them. And you’ll get a hit of something every time you get to be ‘right’ about yourself. So, how can you change it?
- Examine those core beliefs. Core beliefs sit in the subconscious and inform thoughts and behaviours, which influence actions and outcomes. If you aren’t aware of what your core beliefs are then you might repeatedly find yourself in the same situation, facing the same outcomes, feeling stuck, being treated in the same way. Reveal those core beliefs and you can start to change them, which will fan out through your life like ripples in a pond, positively influencing how you see yourself and the world and making you less susceptible to comparison. This is work I do with almost everyone I coach – it’s much easier to do with an expert like me reflecting back your own core beliefs at you!
- Put your phone down. Comparison sells. It’s as simple as that. Companies have been cashing in on our insecurities since the dawn of advertising. The more media you consume, the more likely you are to feel that you’re not already good enough as you are – because if you’re not good enough right now then you are more likely to buy a product or service that will solve the problem. So, stop the flow of comparison nudges by spending less time on social media, TV etc and being really mindful about what you allow into your brain, whether that’s books, magazines, people or Instagram. Alfred Adler said “to be human is to have inferiority feelings” so it’s entirely natural to sometimes feel less than others – but social media in particular can intensify and amplify this in an overwhelming way.
- Go for an evidence-based approach. If you look deeper at comparison, in a way it’s providing evidence of something you lack. You can counter this by building up your own evidence that you don’t lack those things. Humans have a natural negativity bias and we tend to repeat negative thoughts to ourselves day in, day out. It takes a real effort to change that but once you start to, it can be really powerful. Create some physical evidence of your progress/success/achievements/attributes that you can consume as positive media. Maybe that’s pages of client testimonials or a great appraisal, a letter from someone you helped, photos of physical achievements like sporting events, sunrises that meant something, images of good times when you’ve felt loved and valued. Make this evidence big and accessible and learn to trust it more than anything external you consume.
- Stop giving away control over how you feel. That’s essentially what you’re doing when you overindulge in comparison. A little comparison can show you where there are areas in your life you’d like to make changes. But if you’re going into self-judgment, even self-hatred, then there is nothing constructive there and you’re just at the mercy of external manipulation and likely to feel very low and stuck. So, set some strong boundaries with yourself when it comes to comparison. Start to notice what triggers it and do less of that. Reframe the comparison narratives that are most familiar to you e.g. “She’s fitter than me” can become “I find her really inspiring and I know I can do more with my fitness goals.” Your baseline of self-esteem will also be really important, as it will make you resilient to the impact of comparison. Building this up is a process of self-awareness, self-compassion and self-love.
Being more resilient provides a greater depth of resistance to the negative impact of comparison and more energy and clarity to focus on other things. It’s incredibly liberating to be able to escape the comparison trap and is vital if you want to move through life with more confidence and authenticity. If you’d like to find out more about how resilience coaching can help you move past self-saboting habits like comparison, book an intro call today.