Most of us mere mortals can be a bit insecure in our own worth and can, at times, succumb to our ego’s thirst for affirmation. It drives us to look around us—usually to those we consider our peers—for a frame of reference to assess how well we’re doing in our work, wealth, social status, relationships and life. Psychologists have even given it a name: Social Comparison Theory.
Although making the odd comparison can help boost a flagging and fragile self-esteem (at least temporarily) or motivate us to improve ourselves (to work harder at the gym or invest our money more wisely, for example), it can also leave us feeling as if we’re just not measuring up on some level.
When you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, it leaves you on a “comparison treadmill.” The problem is that this treadmill has only one setting, and that is to keep ratcheting up the speed so that no matter how hard you push yourself, it’s never enough. But here’s the truth: The moment you stop comparing yourself, you win!
If how you feel about yourself is determined by how you rate yourself against others, then you’ll never feel good for very long. There will always be someone doing better than you on some measure. Always.
Ironically, the moment you stop comparing, you win. Because as long as you think winning in life is about being better or having more than others, your comparisons hold your happiness hostage. Comparing yourself to others is a race you can never win.
Which begs the question: How can you get off the treadmill of “negative comparisons” and redirect your attention from beating up on yourself to bettering your future? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Recognize your biases.
Most people tend to compare their weaknesses with others’ strengths; their insides with others’ outsides; what they haven’t accomplished with what others have (including people who have a huge head start on you!); and what they don’t have with what other people do!
So whenever you notice yourself comparing (a vital first step), take a moment to remind yourself that you are good enough just as you are, even if you don’t have something you see in those around you (business success, academic credentials, to-die-for home, hot body, celebrity social life or high-achieving kids). They are very likely looking at something you have or do well, and wishing they did, too.
2. Avoid your triggers.
A growing body of research has shown that social media networks, such as Facebook and Instagram, can trigger depression as people compare their lives with those of their increasingly expansive online network of “friends.”
But just as we can add filters to the photos we post, most of us filter the reality we share by highlighting the good and leaving out the not-so-pretty parts. So if scrolling down your Facebook feed only makes you feel miserable about yourself, then do yourself a really big favor and log off. Better still, take a social media sabbatical. You might find it incredibly liberating.
3. Focus on your own progress.
Research shows the happiest people aren’t those who only make positive comparisons with others. They are those who don’t make any. Instead, they focus their efforts on improving themselves. Just imagine the difference it would make if you re-channeled all the energy you’ve expended comparing yourself with bettering yourself.
You are your ultimate frame of reference, so track yourself against yourself. Are you fitter than you used to be? Are you budgeting better than you used to? Are you spending more time doing things you enjoy than you used to? Are you making progress toward your goals?
4. Admit your envy.
Emotions we don’t own will own us. So if you’re wrestling with the green monster, the best way to loosen its grip is to acknowledge and verbalize it. Sure, you might feel a little foolish admitting you’re jealous of someone else’s success, talents or attributes, but having the courage to admit it can be liberating.
Not only that, but by having the courage to confide in the person you’re envious of, you can forge bonds in ways harboring hidden envy never can. By being honest with ourselves and open with others, we can fully realize the futility of our comparisons and the gifts in each other.
5. Get off your own back.
You might think you’re the only person who ever struggles with feeling like you’re constantly falling short of expectations — particularly your own. But the truth is that many people have made self-criticism an art form, habitually focusing on what they haven’t done as well as what they’d like rather than on all that they have.
Just imagine the difference it could make if you focused on what you did do well? Imagine how much better you could channel your energy if you weren’t always pulling yourself down and making yourself wrong. Likewise, don’t beat up on yourself when you do catch yourself making comparisons. That only fans the “I’m not enough” flames. Instead, try being kinder to yourself; accept your own humanity, fallibility and vulnerability. As a bonus, it makes you more forgiving of others’ failings, too.
The truth is that we all have our own fears to overcome, burdens to carry, gifts to share and lessons to learn. So run your own race and focus on doing the best you can with what you’ve got. The rest will take care of itself.
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