Do you struggle with comparing yourself too much with other people?
- Maybe you feel insecure in your work and find yourself constantly comparing yourself and your performance to coworkers.
- Or maybe you struggle more in romantic relationships, regularly comparing yourself to your partner or spouse—or other people’s relationships?
- Maybe you tend to compare yourself to others across the board, whether it’s the guy you play pick-up basketball with on Saturday mornings or that annoyingly creative influencer on Instagram.
Whatever form your unhealthy social comparison takes, I’m sure you’re more than familiar with all the negative side effects that go with it: anxiety, low self-confidence, relationship conflict, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, etc.
The good news is that ultimately unhealthy social comparison is a habit. And regardless of why that habit formed or how strong it is now, all habits can be changed. But in order to break free from the habit of chronic social comparison, it’s important to be clear on why you do it in the first place.
In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through three of the most important reasons why people tend to compare themselves too much to others. And offer some tips on what to do about it.
1. You’re judgmental of the desire to compare yourself to others
You’ve probably heard the advice to stop comparing yourself to other people.
In fact, you’ve probably heard it so much, and for so long, that you’ve internalized it and end up saying it to yourself frequently… I really need to stop comparing myself to so-and-so…
And while this advice to avoid social comparisons is everywhere, it’s both unrealistic and unhelpful.
Human beings are social creatures in the very real sense that complex relationships and social communication were key to our survival and flourishing as a species. We weren’t the fastest or the strongest, or even necessarily the most clever in all respects, but we were surprisingly good at working together.
And this capacity for coordination depended on being highly sensitive and attuned to what other people were thinking and feeling. For our ancestors, their survival literally depended on remaining a part of the group, which meant being acutely aware of things like social hierarchies and status—in other words, how you compared with others.
Comparing where we stand in relation to other people is deeply embedded in our biology.
Of course, there are all sorts of circumstances that lead to some people doing this more or less than others. But those differences shouldn’t obscure the fact that everybody cares to some degree about where they stand in relation to other people (whether they admit it or not).
All that’s to say…
It’s completely normal to compare yourself with other people.
Of course, this tendency can be taken to unhealthy levels. And if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance it has gone at least a bit too far in your own life. But if you want to reign in your unhealthy social comparison to more reasonable and healthy levels, the key is to validate it rather than vilifying it.
See, most people who get stuck in unhealthy amounts of social comparison are also really judgmental and critical of themselves for feeling the need to compare themselves with others.
This means that in addition to struggling with the social comparison, they’re also struggling with all the shame, anxiety, and self-directed anger that usually goes along with self-criticism.
It also means that if you can break the habit of being critical and judgmental of your tendency for social comparison, you can greatly reduce all that painful emotion that goes along with it. And when you get rid of all that, I think you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to resist unhealthy forms of social comparison.
So try this:
Validate the urge to compare yourself to others rather than criticizing yourself for it.
There’s nothing wrong with the desire to compare yourself to others. Remind yourself of that. Everybody feels it.
Because when you give yourself a little self-compassion for your emotions, you’ll find it far easier to control your actions—to stop dwelling on other people, how to stack up with them, what you need to do to be more like them, etc.
- How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps
- The Beginner’s Guide to Self-Compassion
- There’s No Such Thing As a Negative Emotion
2. You have a low tolerance for uncertainty
Deep down, the habit of unhealthy social comparison is almost always a defense mechanism against uncertainty.
- Let’s say you notice that most of your unhealthy social comparisons happen at work. Specifically, you struggle a lot during team meetings where everyone is sharing their updates for what they’re working on for the week.
- As soon as the meeting gets started, your mind gets flooded with thoughts like: Am I doing enough? Should I be working on three different projects like Dan? Emily is always so calm and confident—why can’t I relax?!
- As a result of all this self-talk, you feel incredibly anxious, and very often, ashamed.
- Perhaps you try to argue back with your self-talk and say things to yourself like: My two projects are bigger than Dan’s three, so I don’t need to worry about it. Or Emily looks confident but she’s probably just as anxious as I am. And while thoughts like these can bring a little bit of relief in the moment, they don’t seem to change your overall tendency to compare yourself to others. In fact, sometimes little bits of positive self-talk just become triggers for more negative self-talk.
If you think about it, underneath all of those thoughts about how you and your work stack up compared to your coworkers’ is the assumption that you should have definitive answers to all those questions:
- You should know for sure, and all the time, that you are doing just the right amount of work.
- You should feel totally confident that your work is excellent.
- You should be just as confident as Emily and everyone else and not have any self-doubt or insecurity.
But that’s all totally unrealistic. There’s always going to be a good amount of uncertainty about your performance, just like there are always going to be people who are more confident than you are.
That’s not something you can change. No amount of obsessive worrying or extra work is going to completely eliminate your feelings of uncertainty at work.
So if you can’t tolerate and accept that uncertainty, you’re going to keep yourself caught in the rat race of constantly worrying and comparing yourself to other people in a vain attempt to eliminate that uncertainty.
The solution is to come to terms with uncertainty. In fact, make friends with it.
The next time you feel yourself starting to compare, ask yourself:
- What am I really worried about right now?
- What uncertainty am I trying to eliminate?
- What if I was okay with that uncertainty instead?
Look, nobody likes the feeling of uncertainty. And in many situations, it will inevitably feel bad. But that doesn’t mean it is bad—something you have to get rid of.
So give it a shot. Acknowledge your uncertainty. Validate it. And allow it to come along for the ride.
Once you do, I think you’ll find that your need for excessive social comparisons starts to drop dramatically.
- Face the Real Fear
- How to Get Over Fear of Disappointing Others (FODO)
- Don’t Be Anti-Anxiety. Be Pro-Confidence.
3. Force of habit
Given what we just talked about, it’s important to acknowledge that there isn’t always some “deep” explanation for chronic social comparison. Often it’s simply the result of an old habit compounded over time.
For whatever reason, you got in the habit of constantly comparing yourself to other people decades ago. And because that habit hasn’t been updated or modified, it’s just grown stronger with every passing day and year.
And even if there is also a more complex reason behind your excessive social comparison, a big part of what makes it hard to let go of is still sheer force of habit.
I say this because it’s important to be realistic about what it will take to stop constantly comparing yourself to others. Yes, part of it means acknowledging and coming to terms with the underlying psychological factors behind your social comparison.
But here’s the thing…
Insight is necessary but not sufficient for lasting change.
Changing any kind of habit, including unhealthy social comparison, is going to be work. It’s going to require effort, patience, and time. There are no silver bullets.
So no matter how much insight you discover into why you compare yourself so much to others, at the end of the day you will still have to put in the work required to build a new habit of not comparing yourself so much to others.
The basic formula will probably look something like this:
- Acknowledge to yourself when you’re feeling the urge to compare yourself to others. Literally say to yourself: I’m feeling the urge to compare myself with others.
- Validate that urge as normal and give yourself a little self-compassion. Say something like: It’s normal to want to compare myself to others. There’s nothing wrong with me because I feel this way.
- Intentionally refocus your attention on what really matters to you in the moment. If it helps, you can try a bit of brief self-talk like this: What really matters to me in this moment? Instead of making a decision based on how I feel, what if I used my values to guide my actions instead?
- Each time your mind wanders back to the comparison, gently bring it back to the task at hand. Again, a little bit of brief self-compassion is key: It’s normal for my mind to return to this. But what I really want to be focused on right now is