Here’s Why We Compare Ourselves to Others (and How to Stop)
Every year we so look forward to summer and all the good times it ushers in…but alongside the sunshine, there’s always the hint of a shadow. With summer activities comes the unavoidable temptation to compare ourselves to others. As we look at our friend’s Facebook page splashed with photos of her lounging poolside, we wonder, Why can’t I look like that? Or we see how much more beautiful our neighbor’s yard is and wonder, Does she think I’m a slacker? Or we drool over our sister’s vacation pictures of her perfect family and feel the simple sadness of less than.
Indeed, it’s easy to be held captive by our internal “flaw finder,” notes psychologist Tara Well, PhD. “Negative thoughts — like, I can’t wear a bathing suit because people will see my cellulite! — become our mental soundtrack, causing our self-esteem to take a hit.” What’s more, women who compare themselves to others tend to feel worse about themselves, while men who do the same are more self-assured. That’s because guys often measure themselves against folks they see as less successful than they are, while women make “upward comparisons” to those they perceive as more successful, slimmer or happier.
“The good news is that we can stop these false narratives from defining us by simply shifting how we talk to ourselves,” says Harvard psychologist Susan Pollack, EdD. Here, the four most common traps:
The trap: ‘She’s thinner than I am’.
You’ve been eating healthy, and you’re proud that you shed 5 pounds. But when you see your sister in shorts, you notice how slim she is. Suddenly, a wave of self-judgment rushes over you. Studies show comparing our body to others triggers shame that often goes beyond body image, even making us feel bad about who we are as a person.
The fix: Take comfort in ‘mirror meditation’. “If you try to just ‘look on the bright side’ and force a positive thought that feels false, your mind can skew even more negatively,” explains Well. Instead, she suggests facing selfcriticism honestly with a “mirror meditation.” Simply sit in front of the mirror and observe what you see, noticing how any critical thoughts affect your emotions. The key is to then acknowledge or name your negative feelings, which gives them less power and allows you to release them, she says. Just five minutes of mirror meditation daily for two weeks is shown to boost confidence and self-compassion.
The trap: ‘She’s more successful than I am’.
As you walk into your neighbor’s yard, you notice her new outdoor kitchen. “My work bonus paid for it!” she says. You want to congratulate her, but you can’t help but feel bad. Says Pollack, “When we evaluate ourselves in narrow terms of either ‘success’ or ‘failure,’ it’s easy to feel insecure.”
The Fix: Use your inner compass. To break free of comparisons, connect with your inner compass and let it guide you back to what’s really important, urges Pollack. One simple way to do just that is to recall the last compliment you received and jot it down. “Remembering positive words like, ‘You’re a great friend,’ or, ‘You’re so thoughtful’ activates your internal GPS, showing you just how multifaceted the meaning of success is and how much you matter,” she promises. “You’ll realize that self-knowledge pays far greater dividends than competition with others.”
The trap: ‘She’s happier than I am’.
Every time you have lunch with your friend, she gushes about how well things are going for her. Whether it’s her upcoming birthday bash or her summer vacation plans, her life is always on the upswing. You love her sunny outlook, but it makes you feel like you’re a pessimist. After all, you just told her how stressed you are.
The fix: Savor the joy of the moment. When you feel like everyone else is happier than you, ask yourself what you need right now, and try to pinpoint the easiest way to manifest it, advises Patricia Zurita Ona, PsyD, author of Acceptance and Commitment Skills (Buy from Amazon, $22.90) for Perfectionism and High-Achieving Behaviors. For instance, if you long to relax more, take a five-minute mini break or take a walk. “Focusing on the moment replaces thoughts like, If I take a big vacation, then I’ll be satisfied, with empowering thoughts like, I’m happy right now.” When you’re grounded in the present, you’re able to see all the joyful blessings around you.
The trap: ‘People like her better than me’.
You spot a member of your book club chatting it up with another woman at the grocery store. While you’re not trying to eavesdrop, you can overhear her say, “Can’t wait to get together this weekend!” Later you see photos on her Facebook page of the pretty garden party she hosted for 20 people. Why can’t I be popular like her? is your first thought, followed by, I’ll never have that many friends. Soon, you’re stuck in a loop of self-criticism.
The fix: Shift your lens. It’s easy to look at someone’s social media and mistake their photos and “likes” as evidence that their lives are better than ours, says psychotherapist Pallavi Yetur. The solution: “When social media makes you feel bad, use that as a signal to identify what you really want.” Feeling left out, for example, might be a sign to have a get-together of your own or invite your book club pal to lunch. “Discovering your definition of joy in real life, away from social media comparisons, is what matters.”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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