Stay In Your Lane: How To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
The shortcut to unhappiness is comparison (and it’s actually that simple)
As a child, I remember the rare occasion I had enough change to get a chocolate soft serve from the ice cream truck 🍦🍦🍦
This happened…maybe twice throughout my entire childhood, which means it was a real treat and should have been the best day ever. However, one look at the kid who had an extra 50 cents to dip their cone in hot fudge sauce? Suddenly, my soft serve (which I was delighted about moments before) now seemed inadequate 😞
By the way, a grown-up version of this scenario is what I call #restaurantenvy. This is when you’ve ordered your food at a restaurant and catch a glimpse of the server bringing a hot, steaming plate of what you are now thinking you SHOULD have ordered. It happens to the best of us 🤷🏽♀️
One thing both scenarios have in common is how quickly and naturally comparison occurs. It’s often a split second judgement that results in several possible feelings:
You feel superior or smug
You feel inadequate
You feel envious
You feel unfulfilled
You feel motivated or inspired
You feel grateful
It is entirely possible to experience a drive to level up after witnessing people succeed, or to gather a sense of perspective from the struggles of others. However, aside from feeling motivated or grateful, comparison tends to leave a bitter aftertaste.
It doesn’t help that the categories we can compare ourselves to others are endless: wealth, education, housing, likes/views, physical appearance, grades, ability, youth…you name it, you can compare it.
Just think of the last time you mindlessly scrolled through Instagram. It’s very common to feel like our lives pale in comparison with the shiny veneer of IG life.
The Grass May Be Greener…But It’s Still Grass
We have a tendency to assume others are generally happier, healthier and more successful than we are. Here’s a question:
How do we know this? What informs that assumption?
I can tell you this….it’s not an actual understanding of that person’s circumstances and experiences that informs the assumptions we make about them. We insert ourselves into every assumption we make about other people.
In other words, our assumptions about people are often a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and what we are going through.
What Actually Informs Our Comparisons
When we compare ourselves to others, we are often leaning into cognitive distortions. We wrote a whole blog post on this topic, feel free to check out a more in-depth discussion about automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions here!
Cognitive distortions are basically patterns of thinking that can convince us of things which are not necessarily true. Without any further reflection or examination, we have a tendency to believe these distorted thoughts at face value.
When we compare ourselves to other people, here are some of cognitive distortions that are actually informing the ‘grass is greener’ assumption:
Dichotomous Thinking (all-or-nothing)
We often miss the nuance when dichotomous thinking is at play.
For example, when we are comparing ourselves to someone on IG, we may be unconsciously thinking they are totally happy or totally successful. It’s harder to envision that this person also has bad days and experiences stress and pain the way we do.
A more balanced thought would be: they seem happy in this picture. It acknowledges that without incomplete knowledge of this person’s circumstances, we shouldn’t read into anything beyond the picture itself.
The name says it all. In this distortion, we constantly compare ourselves to standards that are not realistic for where we are in our journey. Unfair comparisons have us measuring our lives against the people we believe are doing ‘better’ than us.
This involves thinking about how things ‘should’ be rather than how they are. When we compare ourselves to someone, we are infusing the comparison with all our ‘shoulds’. For example, “I should look like this”, “I should have done the same thing” etc.
By doing this, we elevate that other person’s to a pedestal, while undermining our own unique journey.
Comparing ourselves to others rarely feels good. Emotional reasoning steps in to tell us that the way we are feeling must mean we have done something wrong or we should legitimately feel bad about ourselves.
It’s very easy to get trapped in a spiral of self-loathing, and then believing what that awful feeling is telling us about our actual situation.
How To Stop The Comparison Game
So far, we have discussed how comparisons are rarely rooted in objective reality. Despite this, I can’t tell you to just turn off this instinct to compare yourself to others- it’s not that simple!
Instead, avoiding comparisons (or even avoiding feeling bad about ourselves after a comparison) involves the intentional work of looking beyond what is available at face value.
Here are a few ideas to help you along this path:
1. Notice What Triggers You (and then avoid it)
We usually know what makes us feel inadequate or unworthy. Start intentionally noticing the activities that trigger these feelings. Is it scrolling through social media? Mute or unfollow any account that makes you feel bad about yourself! Is there someone in your life who asks you pointed questions that make you feel like you are doing everything wrong? Set those boundaries.
Remember that you are allowed to protect your mental wellbeing! If you are engaged in something that triggers unworthy feelings, reflect on whether that activity is adding genuine value and growth potential to your life.
2. Reframe Comparison As Motivation
The most positive outcome of a comparison occurs when we now have a mentor or an accomplishment to orient ourselves towards. .
We can do this by noticing what we really admire about the person or that particular success. Is it the fact that they did it all while taking care of a family? Or perhaps it’s the creativity and ingenuity of their idea. What about the kindness and warmth this person exudes into the world?
Cast aside that automatic feeling of inadequacy and hone in on the qualities you actually want to emulate.
This helps you maintain a reasonable perspective about the person- they are not perfect, but they have qualities you want to demonstrate in your own life. By breaking down what you admire about them, you also gain an appreciation of how much hard work goes into those qualities. It’s not magic, it’s application. And you can do it.
3. Get To Know The Objects Of Your Comparison
Talking to people and understanding their journeys is an excellent way to rid yourself of assumptions about that person’s happiness or success. We all struggle. We all experience grief and pain. No one and nothing is perfect. However, without connecting to others, it’s very easy to fall prey to the perfection myth!
You may find that you have valuable things you would not trade for any part of their success. Or perhaps they have struggled to get to the pinnacle you are comparing yourself to. Without any knowledge of their journey, it seems easy and instantaneous. The reality is that it’s rarely easy, and knowing that can give us immense perspective.
4. Remember That No Comparison Has An Even Playing Field
To a certain extent, we all live ‘outside, in’. This means that we take care to present ourselves to the world in a certain way. YET, we assume that what we see of others’ displays is a complete reflection of their reality.
The truth is, we are comparing who we are on the INSIDE, to who they present themselves to be on the OUTSIDE. How is this a fair comparison? On one hand, we have insight and knowledge about our struggles, insecurities, and cherished successes. On the other…we have only what they choose to show.
Repeat after me: You can’t compare people’s outsides to your insides!
My intention here was to help you disrupt the process of comparing yourself to others and looking beyond what is available at face value. We can’t stop comparisons entirely. However, we can definitely control how we interpret what that comparison is telling us.
Building your self-esteem and self-worth is another excellent way to help keep things in perspective. Have compassion for your journey- you are exactly where you need to be 💛
Until next time!
Mental Health Content Specialist
Hala Shamsi is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.
Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at the email above to let her know!