What’s wrong with a little comparison? Comparing yourself to others can feel like the most natural thing in the world. How else will you know where you stand in life, or what to strive for?
The problem with using comparison as our metric is that sometimes we’ll walk away feeling smug or at least satisfied, and other times, not so much. Since our brains are hardwired to focus more on the deficit than the upside of a situation, the net result of this comparison habit is usually negative.
This negativity bias, as research shows, primes us to pay greater attention to negative effects (unpleasant thoughts, emotions, social interactions or harmful/traumatic events) than to neutral or positive ones. In other words, something very negative will generally a greater short and long-term emotional impact than something equally positive.
Even those of us who tend to keep our glasses half full can easily fall prey to the comparison syndrome after 20 minutes on Facebook. I was one of them! Although I have a Facebook account, I never picked up the habit of regularly posting, and limited my check-ins to the occasional here and there. So the minute I logged in, I would immediately notice how much fun everyone else was having, and that I wasn’t included. It would bring me right back to those childhood feelings of being left out in a family of 3 girls, similar in age, and 3 was a crowd. I was 13 years old again, insecure, inadequate and left out.
Fortunately, these feelings were short-lived, and upon sane examination, recognized as completely silly.
I love my two girls, I love my work, I love my yoga and healthy cooking and hiking lifestyle and generally I feel very blessed. Yet there are places in my life I’m not fully fulfilled. These days I rarely find time for fun, as in just doing something for the joy of it. And I wish I did. So when I see what feels like everyone I know on Facebook having fun, that’s what I noticed. And it made me feel bad.
I’ve since learned my bad feelings aren’t altogether uncommon. Researchers from Lancaster University examined studies from 14 countries, with 35,000 participants, to determine the link between Facebook and depression. They found that frequent Facebook users often compare themselves with others, which can lead to overthinking and rumination and in turn lead to feelings of depression.
Facebook aside, the C word can sneak in those feelings of inadequacy at work or at home when we least expect it.
Your coworker gets a promotion, your best friend’s daughter gets into Berkeley or your sister has just been elected Secretary of State. Instead of sharing the joy of the moment, you’re forcing a smile while secretly wondering when it will be your turn to shine. This sense of envy may morph into guilt as you begin to wonder what’s wrong with you. What could be a shared joy turns into feelings of inadequacy before you even realize what just happened.
Do you see the irony here? Everyone has these feelings sometimes; comparison is natural. Yet gone unchecked it’s not only bad for our self-esteem, it damages our ability to deepen our relationships.
A friend of mine, a highly creative former Paris runway model who is married to the most adoring, supportive and highly accomplished partner one could possibly imagine once told me that people always assumed her life was perfect. Embarrassingly enough, I had secretly been one of them.
At the time, she was going through an extremely challenging time with her daughter. It was hard for people to even relate to the pain she was experiencing, and she felt so isolated because of it. The realization that things always look better from the outside hit me hard at that moment.
I realized that when I’m leading workshops, touting my book and my high energy living tips, I’m only revealing one side of myself. My audience doesn’t see the challenges I face daily, and in fact it may look like there are none.
The truth is, as goal-oriented people, we all have something we excel at and which others probably envy. Somehow, as human nature goes, it just seems more special when it belongs to someone else. The good news is, we have a choice in how we respond, and it’s easier than you might think to turn comparison into connection.
Check out these 5 tips from Psychology Today to avoid the C word and “Do You” instead:
You Do You: A How-To
- Seek Connection, Not Comparison
“Limit time on social media, but more important is how that time is used,” says Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina. Instead of passive scrolling, send private messages, talk about shared experiences, seek genuine emotional connection, and use social media in general to “foster the kind of relationships known to be valuable offline.”
- Look Up, Just a Little
Decades of research suggest that upward comparison can provoke motivation and effort; children who compare themselves to peers who slightly outperform them have produced higher grades, for instance. Seeing that the path to improvement is attainable is key—you’re better off comparing yourself to someone a rung or two above you than to someone at the very top of the ladder.
- Count Your Blessings
If you focus on the good things in your life, you’re less likely to obsess about what you lack. Loretta Breuning, the author of Habits of a Happy Brain, recommends engaging in “conscious downward comparison.” For instance, Breuning says, compare yourself to your ancestors. “You don’t have to drink water full of microbes. You don’t have to tolerate violence on a daily basis. It’ll remind you that despite some frustrations, you have a fabulous life.”
- Compare Yourself to…Yourself
Like the tendency among older people to measure themselves against their own past, Sonja Lyubormirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness notes that “people who are happy use themselves for internal evaluation.” It’s not that they don’t notice upward comparisons, she says, but they don’t let that affect their self-esteem, and they stay focused on their own improvement. “A happy runner compares himself to his last run, not to others who are faster.”
- Pursue Upward-Joy
Based on his own Buddhist practice, San Francisco psychiatrist Ravi Chandra recommends using the social comparison impulse as a springboard for true self-growth. He recounts his own effort to do so in a new book, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks!” Instead of generating envy, which is a form of hostility, explore what you admire and appreciate about other people and cultivate joy for their success,” Chandra says. “It can be a catalyst for personal growth.”