Comparing yourself to others is a natural behavior for most, if not all, people. It’s a topic that comes up often in therapy, with patients worrying about how much better their peers seem to be doing in their lives or admitting that they get a little ego boost when they notice that they’re closer to accomplishing their goals than other people are. But have you ever wondered why, when making comparisons so often causes anxiety or unhappiness, you do it at all?
Why We Compare Ourselves To Others
This tendency to compare oneself to others can be explained at least in part by “the comparison theory.” This theory states that this behavior comes from a drive people have to understand ourselves and determine our place in the world. The comparisons that come from this innate drive are categorized as “downward comparison,” or comparing yourself to someone you see as worse off than you, and “upward comparison,” or comparing yourself to someone you see as better off than you.
Comparisons tend to occur more often when we have low self-esteem, as a way of reassuring ourselves that things can be worse or worrying why we aren’t doing better. It’s easy to see how comparisons can be negative, leading to feelings of discouragement and depression, but people sometimes believe that comparisons can be positive, providing the inspiration to improve.
However, both upward and downward comparisons are ultimately unhelpful because they aren’t based in fact or relevance. Whether, for example, Lebron James’s excellent basketball skills inspire you to work harder or make you feel bad about your own basketball playing abilities doesn’t matter, because Lebron James’s skills have nothing to do with yours. If you practiced just as much as he did, you may become an even better basketball player, or you might not even come close. You are two completely different people with completely different bodies and minds.
How To Stop Comparing
Realizing that comparisons to other people are irrelevant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find another person’s success inspirational. It just means that you should recognize that you can’t know how complex other people’s lives are, or what they’re really like for the person living them. Avoiding making comparisons of other people’s successes to yours also prevents you from feeling discouraged if you face obstacles or struggles while you’re working towards your goals.
A good way to avoid making comparisons is to keep things in perspective. If you tend to compulsively compare, try these strategies to avoid that habit:
- Ask Why You Compare – Family can be the source of a tendency to compare oneself to others. Competitive siblings and encouraging parents can help kids create images of themselves that are hard to break out of and even harder not to compare to others. If you know how you started, you might have an easier time stopping.
- Limit Social Media Time – Social media can be a notorious self-esteem drain. No one posts about all the times they’re struggling or not feeling good about themselves, so all you see of people you know online is big achievements and vacations. Try to cut back on time spent on Facebook, Instagram, etc. and remember that what you do see is always carefully curated.
- Find Similarities – Most comparisons to others that people make are how they’re different: how the other person has a better job, or is less attractive. When you think about how you’re similar to others though, you build connections and recognize how we’re all flawed and wonderful in our own right.
- Be Grateful – If you find yourself thinking something like “My friend is in such better shape than I am, why can’t I be like that?” change the thought into something you can be grateful for, like “She’s in better shape than I am, but I’m glad my body does what I need it to and that I’m generally healthy.” This can help you feel happier about what you have already, and even set you up to make fewer comparisons.
Ultimately, it’s important to know that your value isn’t determined by how well you perceive your life to be going compared to other people’s. Even if your perception is completely accurate, which it’s not likely to be, the other person is different from you, and fills a different social role that you probably couldn’t.
Contact Long Island Psychology Today
If you can’t stop comparing yourself to others, and it’s eroding your quality of life, talking to a therapist can help you work through your feelings and put things in perspective. Contact Long Island Psychology today to make an appointment or request further information about our services.