Often, I have clients come into my office expressing conviction that where they are in their lives is wrong. When I ask them for more details they often say that they are not where they are supposed to be. After some discussion about what “being where they are supposed to be” means to them it becomes clear that their definition is based on comparison with others. These days we get comparisons from social media constantly. Our friend gets a new boyfriend and suddenly all their photos are posted and they look like they have the most solid and committed relationship. That picture might make you turn around and think, “My partner and I had a fight last night and I feel uneasy in our relationship at this moment. We must have a crappy relationship.”
Therein lies the problem! We compare our insides to other people’s outsides. If we are in a relationship then of course we have a front row seat to the details (warts and all) of the relationship. No relationship is perfect. In fact, it is the stumbles we have with our partners (the “ruptures” as psychologists like to call them) that eventually lead to true intimacy and closeness. When you sit with you partner after a disagreement and say “I am sorry I hurt your feelings. I love you,” no one is there to snap a photo of you with your runny nose and smudged mascara. But, that is the moment of true connection NOT a photo of two people smiling on a beach.
It is important to note that social comparison was adaptive for early humans. It was essential to know quickly who you could trust to protect your tribe, village or family. Social comparison was a vital need, but now we have other information we can use and the gift of time to investigate.
So, my suggestions for getting out of the comparison trap are:
- Remind yourself that you are comparing your inside to others’ outsides
- When you feel down after comparing yourself to someone, reach out to them and ask how they got where they are and if they have any tips for you. Unfortunately, we live in a world of individualistic competition where we are taught that we should figure out the answer ourselves. However, we have the gift of a community of people who have wisdom to share. Next time you feel envy or insecurity in reaction to someone’s post try to reach out to them privately and ask how they go there. You will be surprised by the answer because it won’t add up to the one you assumed. If you try this strategy then comparing can lead to growth, change and knowledge.
- Look around you and know that there are always going to be people better at some things and worse at others than you. In this moment you might feel like you are the worst at something, but likely someone has looked at you and thought the same.
- Our self perceptions must begin with knowing ourselves, not by evaluating others.
- Getting out of the comparison sphere also helps your relationships overall. The more you compare yourself to others the more you will see differences and assume everyone else is also comparing. If you let go of that desire then there is more space for authenticity.