It really is the thief of joy.
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But in this day and age, it seems harder than ever to avoid comparing yourself to others. When you’re not worrying about hitting the same life milestones as your peers, you’re facing a barrage of social media posts that seem to highlight all the ways your life sucks (even if that is absolutely not the case). It can touch almost every aspect of our lives, from our careers to our body image to our relationships.
“I kept up with a former colleague of mine on Facebook and found myself constantly comparing my achievements to hers,” says Suzanne, 28. “She seemed to be doing so much better in her new job, and I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere in mine. I put that down to me not being ‘good enough’ to do what she was doing.”
No doubt this situation sounds very familiar. You probably did something similar this morning when you logged on to Instagram and saw some gorgeous influencer doing a Boomerang in a bikini in Bali. But how do you shut up that horrible little voice in your head saying you don’t measure up?
Lorraine Hackett is a psychotherapist with the counselling service MyMind, and says that comparing ourselves to others is sometimes a normal way of feeling connected to society – it can help us define ourselves and identify with others. However, it can be harmful to people whose inner voices are “critical, rather than nurturing”, AKA those of us with low self-esteem.
That person will find that somebody else’s life – their friend, a vague acquaintance, a work colleague, the person they meet once a week at the gym – seems so much better than their own. But they’re not seeing that person’s inner voice and all the criticisms that person has about themselves.
And these things are even less apparent on social media, where it’s so easy to curate a seemingly perfect life on your Instagram grid. “I became kind of obsessed with checking the social media profiles of this girl I thought was so pretty and put together,” says Claire, 27. “I’d be like, wow – she gets so many gifts from her boyfriend, she always goes on trips away, she has a fab brunch with her friends every Saturday. My life seemed dull in comparison.”
But what we need to realise, says Lorraine, is that social media is just that: our way of presenting our best selves. “I then found out that her relationship was actually in tatters and all those presents were her fella’s way of saying sorry for cheating on her!” says Claire. “That didn’t make me happy, like I thought it would. In fact, it made me really sad that she was basically faking a life and I was not only falling for it, but letting it get to me.”
“We know we’re always going to pick the best photo for our Instagram and put the best filter on it, but we forget that other people are doing that too,” Lorraine tells us. “We compare the reality of our lives, and what our overall emotional rollercoaster is on that day, with what someone has chosen to filter and present as their reality for that moment.”
Lorraine admits that even as a psychotherapist who has studied this kind of behaviour, she can fall victim to the social media comparison trap – but by deconstructing these thoughts and finding the source of your urge to compare, you can help to nip it in the bud.
If this is happening over and over again, then slow it down. Take a breath. Say, why do I always compare my weight? Why do I focus on her career? Why do I focus on her love life? Because it will always be one thing that we focus on ourselves. If this is the thing that you’re always going to worry about, you need to be gentle with yourself in that particular area of your life.
You also need to ask yourself if it’s happening all the time with all sorts of people, or if it’s just linked to one person. “If it’s just one person, maybe that’s a choice you need to make about that person,” says Lorraine. “But if it’s something you’re encountering on a frequent basis, over and over with different kinds of people and different scenarios, it’s probably something you need to address within yourself.”
Claire decided to unfollow everyone who was making her feel inadequate, and finds that her Instagram is much less of a comparison danger zone as a result. “And for every perfect brunch snap or bikini picture, I remind myself of all the set up and editing that’s probably involved in making it look that good,” she says. “That takes the shine off it pretty quickly.”
However, it’s good to realise as well that some people are just blessed, and there’s nothing we can do about that. The world is unfair that way, and many gals and guys do just have a great oul’ time of it. But don’t for a second discount the fact that it likely took hard work, dedication and sacrifice to get where they are. And if it didn’t, well, maybe they were a dung beetle in a past life, and this is the universe’s way of balancing it out.
But sometimes, it’s not specifically the person’s job/body/ relationship we crave – it’s their passion or zeal for life. In those cases, Lorraine thinks, it’s good to stop and think about what we’re passionate about, rather than just following their lead.
When we encounter somebody who has a really passionate, positive energy about one particular aspect of their lives, that’s infectious. We can walk away thinking ‘I need to do that! I should be like that!’ because we want that energy and positivity in our own lives. What we should do in that case is go: Well actually, that’s her thing. What’s mine? What do I want to feel that passionately about?
Suzanne agrees: “Once I really thought about it, I realised that my work buddy’s new career was not even slightly aligned with my interests and goals. Once I figured out what those were, I got out there and looked for a job that matched up – and I haven’t been tempted to compare myself to her since then.”
Keep in mind that everyone has their own struggles, and what’s right for someone else might not necessarily be right for us. “We have our own answers. We are our own people, and the choices we make every day are right for us – and we forget that, because we’re measuring ourselves by somebody else’s scale,” says Lorraine. “Those people are working under their own pressures, and judging ourselves by somebody else’s criteria will always give us anxiety because it will never feel authentic for ourselves.”
And even if you’re not one for inspirational quotes, it might be helpful to keep this Buddhist mantra in mind: “A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.”