The Curse of Comparing
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
We’ve all done it.
That endless scrolling.
The sinking feeling when so-and-so posts yet another set of snaps of her picture-perfect life/home/kids/relationship/travels/job. (Delete as appropriate.)
That little voice that says, "Why can’t I have that?" Or, "I could never do what she’s doing". Or even worse, "I’m such a failure."
The truth is that modern life is comparison culture on steroids. This is something we discussed in my community recently and the negative effects of ‘comparisonitis’ were mentioned by several women in the group.
Never before have we had so much (filtered) access into the lives and worlds of others.
There’s little mystery around celebrity. Increasingly, we can see into our colleagues’ homes via a Zoom window and even dating, sex and relationships – the stuff once considered the bastion of privacy – can be played out online for all to see.
So it’s no wonder we compare and inevitably, come up short. Perhaps you feel the same?
Just last week, I was working with a client who was struggling to get visible in her business. Was it because she was shy? No. Was it because she doubted her abilities in her role? Quite the opposite.
The problem? She was paralysed with a bad case of comparisonitis.
Whilst at the start of her business journey, she was scrolling daily through the accounts of her competitors – the accounts of people who had been going for years, who had honed their message, their style and their following. ‘Why’s that a problem?’ You might ask. ‘Surely she can learn from them?’ And yes, logically, that could work. But subconsciously, your brain has other ideas. It starts comparing and before you know it, it's taunting you with the, ‘you’re not worthy’ mantra. And the worst of it is, that knocks your ability to improve, to grow stronger, to keep trying.
Feelings of envy are normal, but they can quickly tip into self-doubt and resentment. You may stop focusing our attention on those you love and can start keeping tabs those who trigger you. Effectively, this can stunt your growth – which is a crying shame, especially if you’ve barely started. (As in the case of my lovely client.)
Let's break it down and take a look at what's going on..
1) The comparisons are largely meaningless
The trouble is you compare ALL of you with just a sliver of them.
You take your own unique circumstances, challenges, history and thoughts and pitch them against a tiny fraction of someone else’s life. Not only that, you pitch yourself against the tiny edited fraction that person has chosen to share.
We’re not even talking a director’s cut here, the bit they are sharing is the equivalent of a thirty second box office trailer. And how many times have you been disappointed by a film when you’ve loved the hilarious promo? (Don’t get me started on Anchorman 2..)
2) There’s always a gap..
If you’ve ever been on London Underground, you’ll know the infamous ‘mind the gap’ announcement. (If you haven’t, imagine those words said in a deep, authoritative tone.)
I wish this announcement rang out as you scroll, to remind you that the gap between truth and ‘reality’ is much wider than you ever imagine.
Maybe you’ve been surprised by one of those couples that appeared sooo loved up on Facebook but split out of the blue a few months later?
I’ll personally never forget one of my mum friends who seemed to have it so together compared to me when our first-borns were tiny. You could have knocked me down with a feather when she admitted to suffering crippling post-natal depression for the first year of her child’s life. (And the guilt I felt for not realising.)
How about my husband who met one of my friends for the first time last year and was genuinely shocked that she looked nothing like her heavily edited Insta photos?
We all cherry-pick what we share with the outside world, and most of us let relatively few people in. When it comes to comparisons, what you see is rarely what you get.
3) The One-Way Comparison
Comparing usually goes in one direction - up.
You don’t tend to compare with people you perceive to be below you, you naturally look upwards. Looking a rung or two up the ladder might not be too harmful, but the tendency is to go straight to the top.
Whilst gratitude is great and an important part of confidence building, comparing rarely results in feeling thankful. How often do you judge your own home against the person who lives in a bedsit? Your finances against those who struggle to find food? Your functioning body against the body of someone battling to stay alive? Probably not very often if you’ve read this far.
The problem with this is that there are always going to be people who are more successful, richer, better looking – the list goes on. (And on.) This constant upward comparison does nothing but breed resentment – usually towards yourself.
In addition, you’re fooled into giving more credence to the things you wouldn’t otherwise care much about.
One of my friends recently took up running and stared the ‘Couch to 5k’ programme. When I asked how she was doing, she said she was feeling demotivated. Why? Because although she could now run 5k in half the amount of time she had set herself when she began the challenge, she deemed that her run times just weren’t quick enough. And yes, you’ve guessed it, she was comparing herself against her runner friends who regularly posted their impressive PB’s on Facebook.
This comparison belittled her amazing achievement, based on something that she didn’t care one jot about when she started.
On to the important stuff... What can you do about it?
1) The first step is always recognition.
Surfacing a subconscious behaviour is inevitably the first step towards tackling it. Knowing when it happens, with whom and how it makes you feel gives you the option to confront the comparing behaviour. Afterall, you can do nothing to change the life of the people you’re comparing too, the only positive change you can make lies within you.
2) Tread your own path.
You are totally, utterly unique.
No good can comes from comparing what’s on your inside with what’s on the outside of others. You know that old expression that ‘it’s like comparing apples with pears?’. This is worse. It’s like comparing an apple to a truck. The comparison is, quite frankly, meaningless.
3) Count your chickens!
There is so much that is great about you just as you are. You already have so much of what others covet. Are you in work? Are you in a relationship? Do you have a home? Are you a parent? Do you drive? Are you educated? Do you have friends? Are you healthy? Are you safe?
Believe me, you are already someone else’s upward comparison whether you know it or not.
Being thankful for what you already have is s huge part of building confidence. So go on, count those metaphorical chickens and be thankful for what you have created.
4) There is no formula for happiness.
It’s not about money, fame or success (whatever that means.)
Sure, these things can help, but just look towards the celebrity world, to those who seemingly ‘had it all’ but crashed and burned, or took their own lives. You soon realise that none of these factors are a guarantee of happiness. Happiness lives on a deeper level and looks different for all of us.
5) Control the scroll!
There are many positives to social media, but there are so many drawbacks too. If social media triggers you, ditch it. If the mere thought sends you dizzy, or you need it for business, control the scroll.
Be purposeful about it.
If one platform triggers you in particular, (ahem, Insta, in the case of virtually all my clients) consider if the benefits really do outweigh the comparisons? If not, move elsewhere. I promise you the pain will be short-lived.
One of the most productive things you can do is to limit the time you spend scrolling (maybe to as long as it takes to enjoy a cuppa) and have a solid reason to go there before you open that app – i.e. to check in with friends, update your account, mindfully check a few business forums. The comparisons always lurk in the mindless scrolling.
Finally, I always talk about how confidence flows both ways. If you are confident, you can help others build it too - and the same applies for social media.
We’ve been conditioned to post willy-nilly. To share every trip, every milestone, every night out and sometimes, even things as mundane as our exercise or dinner. (Guilty as charged, officer!) There’s a sense that we need to share and to be seen to validate our worth.
But think about your need. Is there a distinct purpose to your post (like building a business or public or creating connections with those you love) and who really needs to see? Will Gale from high-school appreciate the snaps of you lounging by crystal blue waters supping a mojito? Or would that be best saved for your nearest and dearest? (There are settings available to do just that, particularly on Facebook, but sadly, many don’t know that’s even an option.)
Summing it up
As with most things when it comes to confidence, intention is key. Running on auto-pilot can lead to rumination and unintentional comparisons.
Taking control of your direction gives you the power to stop, the power to think and a clearly defined set of purpose.
But ultimately, there is one comparison that’s very much worth making and infinitely more meaningful. The comparison of your past-self with you current-self.
P.S. If you're struggling with comparing, drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and see how I can help