I compared myself to other people for years. I’ve compared physical appearance, weight, academic achievements, friendships, possessions, my house, careers, pretty much anything and everything you can think of. These comparisons are never satisfying. If I came out of it well, I discounted it or had a go at myself for making the comparison in the first place. Much more commonly, though, I came up short. It was an exquisite form of torture.
Plenty of theories have been put forward since Festinger introduced social comparison theory in 1954. People have explored everything from the purpose of upward and downward social comparison to the impact of factors like mood. Comparing ourselves to others who are doing a little better can be a powerful motivator or leave us with a sense of dissatisfaction. Conversely, measuring ourselves against someone doing a little worse might boost our self-esteem or as in my case, be short lived or leave us feeling uncomfortable.
There have also been plenty of hypotheses and theories about the drivers of this process of comparison. Superficially, mine is driven by competition. I am incredibly competitive, whether it’s a game of tennis, taking part in a quiz or even finding the ‘best’ route to the destination. People probably won’t notice it most of the time, but for many years, in my mind I have been almost always competing with someone for something. The cruel irony is I’m generally not very successful.
I’ve worked hard on myself and know why I’m competitive and it has nothing to do with a real need to win the quiz or get wherever I’m going first.
When I think rationally like an adult, I’ve known comparing myself through these never ending covert competitions is never going to work. I never emerge feeling positive and I know it - after all, I’ve been trying for years. It’s difficult to stop though because it’s not the rational, adult part of me who’s competing. Instead it’s a much younger part of me. That part of me feels hurt, missed and is desperately trying to do something well enough to get the real, honest praise I need. But I’m not going to get that so I need to stop the painful and destructive comparing. Instead, I need to recognise and acknowledge that younger part of me myself.
Offering myself what I need is a lifelong job. In the meantime a good step forward is to spot the comparisons. There are lots of different strategies and techniques you can deploy but here are the ones that work best for me.
Acknowledge and accept the jealousy without judgement. I love horses. I would love to have a few, keeping them in plenty of space so they can behave like a natural herd. Feeling jealous of someone who owns horses and has the space to keep them is understandable, even to be expected. It doesn’t make me a bad person
Focus on what you love, on what matters. I absolutely love what I do and feel privileged to be able to do it. When I direct my attention to this, problematic comparisons fall away.
Connect with the real desire. What I really value, what fills me up is feeling present in the here and now, appreciating the people I am with. Setting this as my intention stops competitive comparison from getting a hold.
Compare yourself to the person you were, not to others. Fifteen years ago I was working in job I didn’t like, experiencing extreme and continued stress and often very angry. Today, my relationships are stronger, self care is more natural and I feel fuller. The distance travelled is huge.
Savour and be grateful. Savouring is all about stepping outside an experience to really notice and appreciate it. Slowing down to connect with each moment of a walk. Instead of skipping past it I connect with the pleasure. I hear the birds, feel the air, see the shape of the trees. The no space for damaging comparisons.