There’s an old saying — comparison is the thief of joy.
Don’t get me wrong. Competition can be empowering and an opportunity for self-improvement. You or your team either wins or loses; being compared to others is baked into this type of rivalry.
And for those times you lose? Hopefully you handle the disappointment with grace, and either take the loss as motivation to keep trying or move onto something else that better suits you.
Self-comparison is different. It’s often done quite privately, in secret. As time goes on, the very vigilance used to critically compare yourself can become almost addictive, leading you to repeatedly assess where you stand in a race no one else knows you’re running.
Yet what you assume about others is just that – an assumption. If you’re looking at videos or pictures on social media and feeling inferior, remember they’re almost certainly staged and filtered to the point of near absurdity. Or perhaps you’re seeing neighbors laughing as they load their family into the car and you think how they must not have the same problems your family faces. It’s easy to imagine that others are living a more fulfilled and easy life than you while telling yourself a story about others that’s far from the truth
Because what you don’t see is their back story.
A story of the power of assumption…
This next true story could only happen in a small town therapy practice.
I was seeing two moms, both with children in the same elementary school. Let’s call them Jane and Joan. One day, Jane described her shame about how she “put on a show” around others to hide her anxiety.
“When I take my kids to school, I feel like I have to wave and say hi to everyone. I have to be right in the thick of things, but I’m not doing that because I’m truly outgoing. I’m afraid if I don’t that the others won’t like me.
There is a mom I see every day. She quietly walks in and looks like she’s meditated all morning, she’s so calm. The two hold hands and walk to the classroom. Her attention is on her child, not trying to please everyone else. I wish I was like that.
Joan had her own story. She was struggling with anxiety and moderate depression that caused her to isolate herself from others. “When I walk my daughter into school, all I can manage is to cling to her hand, my head down, and get her into her classroom before anyone says anything to me. My heart is racing but I try to hide how nervous I am.
There’s another mom I see every morning. She’s so comfortable in her skin. She obviously knows everyone. I’m sure her kids are always invited to playdates. I wish so much I could just say hello to her but I wouldn’t fit in. So I get out of there as quickly as possible.”
I kid you not. I couldn’t tell them they were talking about each other. But I knew.
What you assume about others can be mind-boggling. You see them living the life you wish you had, and put yourself down because you don’t have those traits or they don’t come easily. Any idea that the person you’ve put on a pedestal has their own set of struggles might never occur to you.
So much in our world pulls for comparison. Your work may urge you incessantly to perform at the top of your game. Constantly upbeat Instagram stories lead you to believe that others’ lives are busy and productive. Even people who post what’s “real” are funny about it – and when do they have time to do that anyway? You haven’t even touched the laundry in a week. Or two..
So how can you avoid this mess?
Five ideas to avoid the anxiety of self-comparison…
1) Someone admires you. Believe it or not, there is someone, today, that’s looking at you and seeing things in you that are worthy and that they wish they had. You may never be aware of them, but they almost certainly exist. So while you might want to adopt traits or habits you see in others, remember that you’re being admired as well.
2) Emulate and be inspired. Recognizing someone else’s strengths is an opportunity to learn and be inspired. Skip the shame. Be proud of yourself for continuing to improve.
3) Compare don’t covet. There is nothing inherently wrong with looking at a friend’s car or hair or physique and recognizing that you feel some jealousy. However, that’s different that coveting. Coveting is wanting what someone else has to an unhealthy degree – and it can become a destructive force in your life.
4) Realize that you may not have a clue how others see you. You may believe that your insecurities “show,” but others probably don’t have a clue that they exist. Many of us are terribly self-conscious. Just think how many times you’ve laughed with a now good friend, “When I first met you, I thought you were….”.
5) Admit your vulnerabilities – things you’d like to improve on. If you state openly that you’re vulnerable in an area, then your own tendency to dislike that trait in yourself will diminish. So you’re shy, hesitate to take risks, talk a lot, avoid conflict, worry too much, or struggle to make goals? So what? If you accept it and want to change, then it’s more possible if you can talk about it.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression is available and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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This post was originally published on January 24, 2015; updated and republished on February 25, 2023.