Sometimes it feels like my friends are out of my league.
Among them are doctors, social workers, professors and entrepreneurs, all successfully balancing high-level careers, personal lives, and physical health. One of them can work for several months straight without a single day off; meanwhile, sometimes it takes me several hours just to get out of bed.
Does that mean I’m lazy? Less than? Maybe I’m just wired differently. But these thoughts only make me feel worse — like I’m broken — and it doesn’t stop the endless comparison game.
Summer is an especially difficult time for comparisons; just think of the Instagrams: beach vacations, rooftop parties, skimpy outfits, summer Fridays, secret flings. It’s easy to think of your friends out there enjoying their fabulous lives, while you’re stuck at work with nothing but growing inbox to keep you company. Comparison leaves you feeling dull and jealous — it’s toxic!
So how do we quit?
Why Comparing Yourself to Others is Problematic
Although it’s easy to look at the people around us and assume we should be able to accomplish just as much or respond to difficult situations in the same manner, comparing ourselves to others is fundamentally problematic.
“As a rule, ‘shoulds’ are generally unreasonable and unfair to place on yourself,” said Talkspace therapist Dr. Rachel O’Neill, a primary therapist of 15 years. “It robs you of the opportunity to celebrate yourself. If you’re constantly looking at the accomplishments of others in order to try to validate your own experiences, then it may be difficult to truly feel grateful for what you have accomplished.”
Not only that, but when we compare ourselves to others, we’re doing bad science. If you use two different methods for an experiment, you can’t expect the results to look the same — and every human on the planet is a unique experiment. Our home environments, upbringings, physical health, and countless other variables influence our experiences and the tools we have to process them.
“You can’t compare success [in] the same way that you can’t compare suffering,” says Melissa Duncan, a psychotherapist of 13 years.
That’s not to say we’re fated to be successful or unsuccessful, or that we can’t change the direction of our lives. It means that our journeys are unique.
Ways to Quit Comparing Yourself to Others
Quitting the comparison game is easier said than done — especially when you have a constant stream of carefully curated images, updates, and hashtags delivered straight to your pocket.
“Stop the mindless scrolling,” Duncan said.
Social-media use is widely associated with significant increases in depression, “so why are you subjecting yourself to torture?” Duncan continued. “Take the break and see what happens. Suddenly, you have significantly less people to compare yourself to.”
Consider that old college buddy you follow on Instagram. His profile might be peppered with pictures from exotic work trips and parties, but what the filters don’t show is how he didn’t get the new job he wanted, or how lonely he feels when the party’s over.
“What [people] post out there is an image,” Duncan said. “All of us are doing it. So what happens if you built a relationship with somebody and you really started to know what their life is like? Connect with people, and you’ll find that we’re all suffering the human condition. Nobody’s immune from it, nobody’s ‘successed’ their way out of it.”
See opportunity, not competition
Make an effort to change the way you view your peers’ successes. For example, your co-worker got a promotion and is doing some exciting new work. Instead of envying her from afar, take her to coffee and ask her how she got there.
“Be open to learning and seeing those people you admire as potential resources,” Duncan said. “They’re your resource, they’re not your competition.”
Maybe your friend is the CEO of a huge company. He’s been featured in magazines and makes well over six figures, but to do so, he works 80-hour weeks and never takes time off.
Does that sound like your definition of success? Maybe it does, if you’re willing to do those things too. If not, then maybe your vision of success looks like having a less lucrative career but more time with your family.
Write down three things you’re grateful for every day.
“I know it’s corny, but it does rewire the brain to be present and mindful of the good things that are happening in your life,” Duncan said.
That includes your past accomplishments. It’s easy to forget the good things we’ve done and the goals we’ve met when we’re focused on what everyone else around us is doing.
“If you need to go back and remind yourself of all that you’ve gained and all that you’ve accomplished along the way, you should do that,” she continued. “You did that thing, and you need to remember how you got there. Was it luck? I bet not. I bet you actually accomplished it.”
When you do find yourself comparing someone else’s perceived success with your own, Duncan said you should ask yourself one simple question:
“What does their success mean about you?”
The answer is simple: Nothing. Your friend’s new job, your cousin’s new boyfriend, your acquaintance’s vacation — none of those things have any bearing on your value, capabilities, or efforts.
And if you think they do, “the script that you’ve probably developed is ‘they’re good and I’m not,’” Duncan said, “and that script goes way back. What message were our parents sending about us? And as we were growing up in elementary school and we started doing the comparison thing, what is the narrative that we built? You have to change the narrative.”
Finding it Difficult to Quit Comparisons? A Therapist Can Help.
Changing the script is no easy task, especially if you’ve spent years measuring your worth against someone else’s success.
“Finding a competent therapist can be a huge key to changing [the comparative] narrative, because you have to understand where the narrative comes from — and sometimes that’s the hardest part,” Duncan said.
A professional therapist can help you identify fallacies the story you’re telling yourself and give you the tools you need to write a new one.
Duncan explains that “We’re just wearing a new pathway. The pathway you’ve worn thus far is that ‘I’m a bad person, I’m not as successful as so-and-so.’ Well, you can change that narrative, which is ‘They’re really successful and I’m well on my way.’”
So the next time you find yourself feeling less than when you look to someone else’s accomplishments or situation, remember: You’re a different person with a different backstory, a different set of tools, values, and goals.
Focus on your story, not someone else’s.