I know a lot about comparing ourselves to others and what that does to us – both the positive and the negative effects — because I’ve engaged in comparison more times than I can count. Once I began training as a marriage and family therapist, I learned to expand my awareness of my thoughts and feelings, and through that process, I saw much more clearly when and how comparison has enlivened me, and also where it’s made me feel awful – jealous, resentful, and “less than.”
Now, working with women and men to build happier, more rewarding lives and careers, I’m seeing even more clearly how the act of comparing ourselves to others can be motivating, and when it can backfire and become damaging and self-destructive.
As I’ve written more about this, some people have said, “No, Kathy, you’re wrong. Comparison is always very helpful.” Sometimes it is, but often it’s not. There are many people around us (you know who they are) who obsessively engage in comparison, and it makes them sad, sick and depressed, and separates them from others and from joy.
Here’s a look at my personal take on how to stop obsessively comparing yourself to others and coming up short (and why you need to):
The most important thing to understand is that there is a huge difference in energy and outcome between being excited by other people’s success and using that vision to inspire you, versus beating yourself up mercilessly because you’re not where they are. If comparison makes you feel worthless and demoralized, unable to get what you want and “deserve,” and you resent others for what they have, it’s time to stop comparing or shift your approach to it.
But when done in a life-affirming way, comparison can be positive. It can generate:
– A feeling and belief that something greater and more rewarding is possible for you because you see it in someone else
– A clearer pathway to success because you have a role model who is ten steps ahead of you doing what you long to and giving you a blueprint for getting there
– More positive growth in you because witnessing someone else’s expansion reminds you that you have what it takes too to achieve that same outcome or accomplishment, or something greater
Where comparison to others goes wrong is in these ways:
Obsessive comparing – when you just can’t stop
I personally know and have worked with hundreds of people who are addicted to comparison and to feeling like a loser or a victim. They literally spend hours of their time each week on Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media platforms looking at what other people have created and achieved, and they feel sick and depressed afterwards.
This type of comparison leads people to invest in negative, destructive beliefs such as:
– I don’t have good friends to experience amazing times with (like these other people)
– I’m not rich, beautiful, talented, educated, thin (you name it) enough to be lovable
– My children aren’t as successful and accomplished as they should be and as so many others are
– My or my kids’ disabilities and challenges are shameful and humiliating
– I’m not as loved as so many others out there are
– I don’t have vacations or life experiences that are exciting
– My life and career are a huge disappointment and embarrassment
– I haven’t achieved anything worthwhile
– I’m totally alone
It’s critical to remember (but so many people forget) that social media platforms like Facebook – which can be helpful and enjoyable if used wisely – encourage us to put out into the world only the most sanitized, flattering and praise-worthy version of our lives, not the real, raw experiences we’re having.
Just ask yourself this:
How many selfies have you taken (of yourself alone or with others) that go in the trash bin and never end up being shared?
Hundreds, even thousands, I’d guess, because you censor and judge them so harshly that most never see the light of day. Only the most beautiful and flattering make it.
This realization is vitally important because it’s a damaging mistake to compare the raw reality of your own life with the highly fictionalized, sanitized and “touched-up” version of another’s. You never know what their life is about, what they’re dealing with and and the hidden battles they face , and you never will know.
Always falling short and findings yourself unworthy or “less than”
When people compare then feel demoralized, it’s often stemming from a belief that you’re not good enough, and you’re always on the hunt for validation of that belief.
We have to realize and remember:
Society trains us to compare ourselves using outer, socially-constructed measures of “success” and worthiness including: beauty, age, weight, money, social status, marital status, etc.
Understand that there’s extreme pressure on us to achieve those measures, but in reality, they’re culturally-derived ideas that won’t necessarily bring you personal joy and fulfillment, given your unique values and wants. (Take a look at this powerful, eye-opening TED talk from Ashton Applewhite on Ageism.)
– If you feel continually as if you’re “less than,” ask yourself “How old is this feeling?” I’m guessing that for most, the feeling of “not good enough” began in early childhood, reinforced by authority figures who somehow conveyed that what you did and who you were was not worthy of their unconditional love and positive regard.
– Thousands up thousands of people in this world have been raised by narcissists and exposure to narcissism can bring about extremely damaging effects. It’s projected that at least 10% of the U.S. population has borderline personality disorder and/or narcissistic personality disorder, and from my research and study, the number who are affected by people with these disorders is vast. Those who experienced emotionally-manipulative parents often grow up never feeling good enough, and this feeling of lack of worthiness bleeds into all aspects of their lives, including their careers, businesses, families and relationships.
– If you are chronically unhappy with your life, comparing yourself to others isn’t going to help you. You need another approach that will inspire and motivate you to “find brave” and make the changes you need to be happier.
How can you stop the negative comparing and expand your self-love and self-acceptance?
Gain awareness of your thoughts
Begin to gain awareness of each harsh, judgmental thought you have of yourself in comparison to others. Start to see more clearly when and how you judge yourself and how hard you are on yourself. Every time you recognize a self-hating thought, say to yourself “There goes one of these judging thoughts.” Then release it, with love.
Change your self-hating narrative
Once you’ve done that for a week, you’ll begin to see how tough you are on yourself, and it’s time to actively shift your negative thoughts. You need deep commitment and unflagging perseverance, but you can change your thoughts. When you find yourself comparing harshly, stop in your tracks and dig deeper. Try to understand what you feel you are missing, and why. Look at the story you’re telling yourself, and rewrite that story.
If you need help with this, start by saying this mantra every day:
I am on the right track and on my own, unique path to building a life and livelihood I love and am proud of. I am NOT behind. I’m exactly where I need to be, learning and growing all the time.
Remember, you’re unique, powerful, capable and worthy of charting your own empowered and joyful course. But first you have to stop the self-recrimination, and start learning the positive lessons your life is trying to teach you.