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The Comparison Trap and How to Deal with It

The comparison trap is one I think we’ve all fallen into at one time or another. I certainly have. Comparisons themselves are neither good nor bad, but how we use them can have an enormous effect on our mood and how we see ourselves and our world. For instance, I can compare myself to LeBron James and either be inspired or be completely demoralized. If I focus on the fact that he wasn’t born a basketball superstar but invested thousands of hours in practice and hard work to develop his skills, I may be encouraged that I can improve my own skills (even if I’m never a LeBron James). If I compare myself as I am today with where he is, I’m going to be defeated before I ever even try. So whether I’m inspired or demoralized depends on my intent and what measures I use. I think many of us, when we’re comparing ourselves to others, aren’t doing so to be inspired. We’re doing so out of a scarcity mindset, a mindset of fear and insecurity. We want to know where we rank. And I think when we do this, many of us have handicapped ourselves so that we’re sure to suffer by the comparison. In my example, this would be me comparing myself right now, not having worked on developing my basketball skills, to LeBron James as he is now after all his hard work to do just that. It’s an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison that is almost designed to make me feel bad about myself.

Social media is a dangerous place for people who like to compare themselves to others. I have seen it depress people to the point of attempting suicide. At a minimum I want to remind you that people craft their social media presences. In many instances, we’re seeing what they want us to see, which may not reflect the full reality of their lives. I refer to this as the Christmas card phenomenon. In the Christmas card there is often a letter with a summary of what the family has been up to the past year. It’s usually a glowing recounting of events; the stresses and disappointments are often glossed over. We can do this with our social media, as well. We brag about our promotion (but we never mentioned the two we didn’t get previously) or post pictures of our fabulous vacation getaway (but neglect to share that we fought most of the time we were on that trip). This means you are at a huge disadvantage. You are likely all too aware of the disappointments and what you believe to be your failures. So you are comparing your harshest view of yourself against an artificially perfect presentation of others. Of course you aren’t likely to come out the winner in that comparison. Instead, you might feel like a failure or tell yourself that you’re are a loser. Yikes.

When I talk about this with clients, I suggest really cutting back on social media time in order to minimize those comparisons. But even if you do this, you can still find plenty of opportunities in the world around you to compare yourself and find yourself lacking. When you find yourself coming up the loser in a comparison you’ve made, try the following to add some balance:

  • Ask yourself why you are making this comparison. Is it helpful to you? If it’s not helpful, it’s likely bringing you down and therefore it’s in your best interests to stop making the comparison.


  • Remember most “overnight successes” really aren’t. That is, we usually don’t see all the hard work, tears, and time put into something before someone becomes a noticeable success. Remind yourself that their success probably didn’t just happen effortlessly. Ask yourself if there is a step you can take to move you closer to your own success. Can you use the comparison to inspire yourself?


  • Remember that you shine in your own, different ways. When you catch yourself comparing your ten year old car to your neighbor’s brand new one, you can intentionally highlight something positive about your situation. For instance, “Wow, John’s car sure is newer and nicer than my old car, but then again, I don’t have car payments and I don’t have to worry about scratches and dings to my new car.”


  • If you remember my blog post on “should” statements, you might remember that “shoulds” can be a quick trip to self-criticism and depression. Using the previous example, it is easy to imagine some people saying to themselves, “As hard as I work, I should have a new car” and then feeling badly about themselves and their situation because they do not have a new car despite working so hard. Instead of “should,” try something like, “As hard as I work, it would be nice if I could afford a new car, too.” Can you feel the difference between the two statements?


  • Consider carefully if your assessment of yourself is fair and accurate. Many times, our inner critics are unbelievably harsh and hold us to standards we would never hold others to. If it’s not a standard for other people, why should it be a standard for you?


  • Focus on gratitude and what you do have. Gratitude is a mood lifter and a good antidote to feeling down when we find ourselves the loser in a comparison.


  • Psychologist Amy Morin made a statement that I love: “The only person you should compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday.” I love that statement because it challenges me every day to be slightly better in some way than I was the day before. When we compare ourselves to others, we put our focus on them and not on the only person we can control: ourselves.


Some people make comparisons the other direction, where they look at someone else and see that the other person doesn’t measure up to them. This can make a person feel really good…until, that is, they encounter someone else that they perceive is better than them in whatever they are comparing. There is always going to be someone smarter, better looking, wealthier, etc. than we are, so using comparisons with others to make ourselves feel good is a risky tactic—working until it suddenly doesn’t.

I want to take a moment to wish a safe and meaningful holiday season to all of you. We’re almost done with 2020! If you would like to work with me on making your 2021 different, call or text me at (816) 226-4678.

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