Here in the UK, we are nearing the end of a 3rd — and hopefully the last! — national lockdown. I think it’s safe to say that most of us are feeling the effects of the past year by now. I know I sure am. Lack of routine has affected my work and a series of other events I won’t get into have led to my self-worth taking a hit. Out of this, one pattern of behaviour I have continuously found myself carrying out is, comparing myself to others.
A friend’s new house, a relationship, others successes, or one of the many other examples throughout the day, I find myself turning the focus to how I can measure up. Each and every time, I take the brunt of the hit. No longer, however. I often write my posts as a cathartic release and this one is no different. Let us dive into why we compare ourselves to others and ultimately, what we need to do to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.
Why Do We Compare?
The External Influence
We are taught from a very young age to be aware of how we measure up. I remember distinctively being told in school that some of us would succeed and some others would not. We had to be better than those around us because they were our competitors; for jobs and university spots. What I’m sure teachers intended was to inspire motivation, was actually helping instil a habit that has the potential to debilitate one’s self-esteem when used incorrectly -more on that later -. That combined with a society where scarcity is rampant and the market is as saturated as ever, the inner belief that we are only as good -or worse — than our neighbour is thriving. And I haven’t even mentioned social media.
The Internal Influence — Social Comparison Theory
Matters are not made easier by the fact comparison seems to be in our genes. At least, that is what psychologist Leon Festinger believed when he proposed the self-comparison theory. His theory states that evaluating our worth and status is a natural process by which we use other people to compare and contrast ourselves against. A way to get a better picture of who we are, if you will. Psychologists further differentiate comparison into two types; upward and downward. Upward comparisons are ones where we compare ourselves to those seemingly above us and downward comparisons are those in which we perceive the other person to be worse off. The content of the comparison can of course vary and encompasses anything from financial wealth, beauty, intelligence, relationship status, or any other variable.
There is much more on this subject I won’t go into but it’s worth noting a possible mechanism behind our need to compare ourselves to others. Also, these upward/downward comparisons can both have positive and negative outcomes depending on our self-esteem. For example, we may compare ourselves to someone we believe to better than us and feel inspired and motivated to change. As is the subject of this post however, we may also use this to devalue ourselves.
Where does comparison go awry?
Comparing ourselves to those who we perceive as better than us can be motivating when we believe we are capable of achieving their success but can quickly become toxic if we believe we are inept. That is where self-esteem comes in. Studies show that those of us with low-self esteem are more inclined to react negatively to comparisons than those with high self-esteem. This ties nicely into a phenomenon called confirmation bias’.
We will often seek out information to confirm a particular belief about ourselves which is why individuals with a poor self-image will react negatively to comparison compared to those who have a positive self-image.
“Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it”
It is difficult to reap the positive benefits from comparison — motivation and inspiration — when you believe you are inadequate to begin with. How can you be motivated to improve your life when you believe you are incapable of success? It is a losing battle from the get go. Despite the fact comparisons are mostly unfairly judged, the fact you believe you are unworthy will lead to a skewed judgement just so you can be right. Weird we do that, right?
The Shame Spiral
What feels particularly demoralising in negative comparisons is the feeling that accompanies them. Shame spirals are not uncommon in negative comparisons. The gap created between the idealised person we wish to be like and the belief that we will never be that person creates an unpleasant shame reaction within us. The realisation that we cannot live up to our idealised standards only serves to lower our self-worth further and feed into our confirmation bias. It is a negative feedback loop that once started is difficult to break. Saying that, it can be. So let’s look at how.
How Can We Begin To Overcome Negative Comparisons?
If you are in a habit of comparison, then welcome to the club! I am glad you are here. Be it our internal biology, external influences or likely a mixture of both, comparing ourselves to others is not a great place to be. Especially when we feel the negative brunt of the act. From our internal world to our external, let us look at how we can begin to change this habit.
1. Notice When/How You Are Comparing Yourself To Others
The first step to any behaviour change is first, awareness. Without awareness we can’t hope to stop any behaviour because we won’t know when we are doing it. Or why, for that matter. When do you compare yourself and what are the themes? Is there something that is triggering these thoughts? Here we are painting a picture of how comparison relates to us.
As Robert Puff PH.D talks about in Psychology Today,
“In order to bring about change in our lives and to achieve happiness, we need to know what’s going on.”
Developing the skill of awareness isn’t difficult. It just takes practice. Many individuals simply run off their automatic reactions. The problem is, many of these reactions are coming from limiting and harmful beliefs. Next time you find yourself caught in a comparison mindset, stop and evaluate the situation. What has triggered this? What is the subject of the comparison? Mindfulness meditation is a brilliant way to develop this skill.
For me, I have recently had difficulty comparing myself to others successes. I am also aware -through mindfulness- that social media apps have been triggering comparison thoughts. This is all useful information to work from.
2. Reframing The Thoughts
Much like anxious thoughts, thoughts of comparison can be very black and white. In this, we ignore the full picture in favor of information that helps confirm our bias’ about what we believe to be true about ourselves. If we took the full picture into account, we would realise that not one of us is running the same race. In any credible scientific experiment where the researcher is looking to compare the effects of two different things, it is essential that the two experiments are IDENTICAL barring the one thing they want to compare. Otherwise, it is an unfair experiment and the outcome is void.
For example, when you are comparing your looks to someone else and using the evidence of your claim to confirm an idea that you are less attractive to a potential partner, the comparison is not credible. There are many assets apart from looks that dictate how attractive you appear to a potential partner. The black and white thinking behind your comparison is leading you to conclusions that are not only wrong, but extremely detrimental to your own self-image. Not only this, but your confirmation bias is warping your view so that you can prove yourself right. It is not a fair comparison. Reframe the picture. Expand your thoughts.
When you find yourself making a black and white comparisons and feel the tinge of shame that tells you you must be inadequate, question it. Ask yourself. Is that true? Can you be absolutely certain that that is true? This is very much where the work of Byron Katie -who I highly recommend for the subject of reframing thoughts -comes in. In most cases, your judgement can’t possibly be true and from there, you realise how black and white your thinking is.
Understand that our brains are constantly scanning our environment for evidence to prove a particular belief about yourself correct. This confirmation bias may automatically result in a negative comparison. When you see a post on Instagram you may automatically compare yourself and jump to a conclusion without intentional effort. What matters is how you move from there. Do you believe the statement or do you question it? Each time you question it, you take the power back. Each time you catch yourself, you give yourself the opportunity to change a belief.
For example, you see someone's picture on Instagram and automatically claim their life to be better than yours. Without awareness you would simply take that as fact and devalue yourself. Through pausing and asking yourself “Is this really true?”, you will see it is not. A picture on Instagram is merely a snapshot and you can’t possibly know the life that individual is living. From one mere question and answer, you have shown how inaccurate your assumption is. There is no need to devalue yourself.
Reframing your thoughts gives you the birds-eye view you need in order to make an honest judgment. Most times you will realise the comparison is not fair and therefore your conclusions are invalid. Remember, just because you are having a comparative thought and may get a shame reaction, that does not mean there is truth there. You get to decide what you wish to believe as true or not. There may be an underlying belief there, but that does not have to be your belief moving forward.
3. Boosting Self-Esteem
We established above that self-esteem is the culprit for negative comparisons. Therefore, in order to tackle it we need to start building our self esteem. This is easier said than done but is a process and can be achieved. Self-esteem is an inside job and is not self-confidence as Claire Jack PH.D talks about in Psychology today;
Self-confidence can be derived from being successful in one area of life, whereas self-esteem is how highly we regard ourselves as a person.
It reflects our inner beliefs about ourselves. Incorporating judgments on our looks, talents, and worthiness to paint a picture of how we view ourselves in the present. Those with low self-esteem will therefore have inherent beliefs that they are not good enough be it in appearance, intelligence, social ability or any other area. These beliefs will then stem outwards into behaviours that reflect that inner belief I.E. COMPARISON. James Clear talks about this in Atomic Habits;
“Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.”
We have established inner beliefs are causing a low self-esteem. How do we then change these inner beliefs? Building self-esteem comes with accepting and loving who you are, right now. This does not mean you can not strive to improve yourself but it must be coming from a place of self-love and not self-rejection. Many in the personal development realm confuse self-love with self improvement.
The first two points are important as negative self-talk is reaffirming unhealthy beliefs about ourselves. Reframing the thoughts will help tackle this. We must now practice compassion and acceptance of who we are, right now. This is where gratitude work is vital.
David R. Hamilton has done much work on the importance of thought and its impacts on our mind and body -See his blog -. In essence, our brains can’t tell the difference between what is reality and what is thought. This is imperative as our thoughts are therefore impactful on our views about ourselves. Telling ourselves that we are unattractive, unintelligent or less than to others, is like someone telling us that to our face in real-time. Our brains will feel the rejection regardless of if it is reality or our own thoughts. This is why gratitude work is important and has many benefits.
Taking the above into account, these are practices you should look into incorporating into your daily life to improve self-esteem.
- Each day, morning and night, write a gratitude list of things you are thankful for.
- Practice meditation as this will help cultivate feelings of compassion and kindness towards yourself
- Reframing each negative judgement into a more realistic and open statement with a positive spin.
- Identify actions you are carrying out that are reflecting a slow self-esteem and then begin to change them.
- Start living more authentically.
This is not quick work and takes time. A commitment to loving yourself will pay-off, however. The only reason you believe something about yourself is because you have evidence to support it. This current evidence will look like negative thoughts and actions that do not reflect someone with high-self esteem. In order to change your view about yourself then, you need to create new evidence. That is why daily self-care practices like gratitude journaling, meditation and reframing negative thoughts will build up over-time. But you have to commit. A few days of gratitude journaling and being mindful of your thoughts is not going to cut it. This has to become a routine.
4. Changing External Influences
Having looked internally we must now look externally as changes must be made here, too. What is causing your self-esteem to take a hit and therefore perpetuating this desire to compare yourself negatively to others? Social media? A particular relationship? Whatever it is, its crucial you look at changes that may need to be made.
For me personally? I recently deleted Instagram. Aware that I was going through a period of low self-worth, constantly seeing other peoples idealised lives was only feeding into a bias I had about myself. So I had to cut it out. Are there similar changes you can be making? These changes don’t have to be permanent but if we actively doing something that is hindering our self-esteem, its best to remove it while we do the inner work. No one wants to write a gratitude journal entry only to open Instagram and berate themselves for not looking like their acquaintance who’s living it up in Dubai.
Bring awareness to your external environment and see what may be influencing your low self-worth mindset. Are there individuals in your life who are holding you back? Whatever it is, look outwards and change it, if you can.
5. Words for the Wise
To finish off I just wanted to go over some general takeaways to remember in quick-fire succession.
- Other peoples lives are not as they appear over social media
- Even if they are ideal, we are not all fortunate in our own circumstances. Inevitably it is our thoughts about our circumstances that is causing the damage
- Comparison may be a societal pressure but we are all on separate paths and can not be compared equally to one another.
- Saying the above, when you compare yourself to others you are taking the power away from your own journey and your own path
- Your life is beautifully unique to you.
- Beliefs can be changed but they require consistent effort
- Concentrating on what you don’t have will only lead to you never having enough
- Negative comparisons are due to your low self-worth and to overcome it you must increase your self-esteem
- Become your own ally
- Believe life is happening for you, not against you
In conclusion, self-esteem lies at the heart of our need to compare ourselves negatively to others. I hope this post inspires you to start appreciating yourself for the wonderful person that you are. Follow the page for more and subscribe to my youtube channel if you like.