There’s an old saying — comparison is the thief of joy.
It’s one thing to actively participate in a competition, where you intentionally decide to be part of a team or choose to make some huge individual effort in a contest. You either win or lose. You’re choosing to be compared to others.
Competition is a good thing. If you win and keep it in perspective, then it’s wonderful. And for those times you lose? Hopefully you handle the disappointment, 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. And it can easily be used to find fault with yourself. And that leads to shame. And so often, what you assume about others isn’t accurate. As I like to say, “There’s always a back story.” There’s something that you don’t know that could radically challenge your own assumptions.
A story of the power of assumption…
This next story could only happen in a small town therapy practice, but I promise you it’s quite true.
I was seeing a mom with children in an elementary school. One day, she 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.”
As it happens, I had another mom in therapy who had a child at the same school. She was struggling with anxiety and moderate depression that caused her to isolate.
One day, these were her words to me, “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. Constantly upbeat or perfect-looking FB or Instagram posts and stories lead you to believe that others’ lives are full of joy and happiness. Commercials and advertisements still tend to use beautiful-looking thin people to promote everything from aging cream to dental floss.
So how to you manage in a world that seems to thrive and even encourage constant comparison where it’s far too easy to make assumptions?
Five ideas to avoid the anxiety of self-comparison…
1) We are all on a spectrum. 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’re likely never going to 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) You can grow by emulating what you admire. 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 all of your goals. Be proud of yourself for continuing to improve yourself.
3) Comparison can turn into coveting. You can get caught up in wanting for yourself what someone else seems to have. This can lead to doing things or saying things that will only demean you in the long run. Coveting is not only wanting what someone else has to the point that it’s destructive. And it can turn very ugly.
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. Folks are, as a whole, too self-conscious to analyze you. They are thinking about themselves and are likely to assume things about you that you might never imagine. Just think how many times you may have laughed with a good friend, “When I first met you, I thought you were….”.
5) Admitting your insecurities is a path to decreasing comparison with others and accepting yourself. 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.
You can hear more about relationships, parenting, and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”
This post was originally published on January 24, 2015 and was republished on December 15, 2018.