There’s an old saying — comparison is the thief of joy.
It’s one thing to actively participate in a competition, where you intentionally choose to make a huge individual or team effort in a contest. You either win or lose and being compared to others is baked into this type of rivalry.
Competition like this is a good thing. If you win and keep it in perspective, then it’s especially rewarding. 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.
Self-comparison is different. It’s often done quite privately, even secretly. Yet the very vigilance used to critically compare yourself can become almost addictive, leading you to constantly assess where you stand in a race no one else knows you’re running. And so often, what you assume about others isn’t even accurate. Whatever figures or videos or pictures you’re seeing don’t depict real life. They’re made up. Exaggerated. Photo-shopped. Only the best of the best. Or you could be telling yourself a story about what you’re seeing that’s far from the truth.
What you don’t see is the 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 mom both with children in the same elementary school. Let’s call them Jane and Joan. One day, Jane described her own inner shaming voice that constantly compared her to others.
“When I take my kids to school, all I do is 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 that outgoing. I’m afraid if I don’t that the others won’t like me.
There is this woman who brings her child to school. She quietly walks in and looks like she’s meditated all morning, she’s so calm. The two hold hands and walk to her classroom. I wish I was like that. But not me. I am way too insecure for that. I would be afraid others would think I was snobby or something.”
Joan had her own story. She was struggling with anxiety and moderate depression that caused her to isolate herself from others.
One day, this was Joan’s description of taking her child to school. “When I walk my daughter into school, I’m so self-conscious that 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 is this woman there. She’s so comfortable in her skin. She obviously knows everyone. I’m sure her kids are always invited to play. 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 can see others as possessing the very attributes you wish you had, and put yourself down because you don’t have those traits or that they don’t come easily. You may never realize that they have their own struggles underneath whatever they display.
So much in our world pulls for comparison. Your work may urge you incessantly to perform at the top of your game and may give bonuses to only those that reach a certain level. Perhaps constantly upbeat or perfect-looking Facebook posts or Instagram stories lead you to believe that others’ lives are full of joy and happiness. Then there is the fact that commercials and advertisements still tend to use beautiful-looking, fit people to promote everything from aging cream to dental floss.
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. Seeing someone else’s strengths is an opportunity to learn and be inspired, just as long as you don’t see yourself as “less than” because you haven’t yet achieved your goals. 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. It can even lead to doing things or saying things that will only demean you.
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 what’s underneath the surface. Most of us are self-conscious and are probably worried about what you think of them. Just think how many times you’ve laughed with a now good friend, “When I first met you, I thought you were….”.
5) Admit insecurities. If you state openly that you’re vulnerable in an area, then your own tendency to dislike that trait in yourself will diminish. It’s not that bad that you are shy, hesitate to take risks, talk a lot, avoid conflict, worry too much, or struggle to make goals. If you accept it and want to change, then it’s more possible if you can talk about it.
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This post was originally published on January 24, 2015 and was republished on December 15, 2018 and then again on February 19, 2021.