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We are the most connected generation in the history of mankind. As incredible as this is and the opportunities that it brings, there is, of course, the shadow side. Media and social media glamorize the lives of a few. We see their achievements, their homes and cars, vacations in beautiful destinations, and a lifestyle that seems almost too good to be true. Of course, it’s natural to want that.
The problem with comparing your life to others
But what we don’t see are the years of hard work behind it, the daily effort and practice, or hours put in to achieve and maintain it. Maybe you don’t have a passion for music but you want to be a pop star. Or can’t stand having your picture taken and definitely don’t want to spend hours setting up the shot, planning, and editing, but an Instagram model’s life seems so flawless.
It’s one thing to admire something or someone. It’s an entirely different thing to aspire to be that.
Comparison tends to make us come up short. It’s a win or lose game and we seem more inclined to compare our lives unfavorably. We either compare our worst traits against an area where someone else excels or compare our best traits against an area that someone else hasn’t developed or is simply not interested in. One way we lose, the other we win.
Here’s the real catch: comparing your life to others, and assigning a hierarchy, doesn’t make for camaraderie, compassion, mutual respect, and friendships. Instead, it turns us all into rivals rather than genuinely enjoying the accomplishments of others and appreciating our own.
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The science of comparison
So, why do you end up comparing your life to others even though it mostly brings pain? Because it’s human nature. As human beings, we are hardwired to compare. We are designed to understand ourselves. It starts as a tiny baby when we first discover our toes. Then, as toddlers, we discover other people’s toes and see how they compare to our toes. Human babies and animal babies learn behavior, communication, and survival skills from mimicking those around us. And, once we have the mimicking down pat and reasoning abilities begin to kick in, we go straight to comparison mode. We want to see if what we are doing is the same as those around us. Essentially, do we fit in? Because the primal part of our brain, the hindbrain (fun video here!) and medulla which are responsible for survival, drive, and instinct, tells us that if we “fit in” we will be taken care of and fed. If you’re a 2-year-old and no one is feeding you, you are in big trouble! So to the tiny, survival brain, “fitting in” is life or death.
As adults, however, in the animal world, winning is what gets you fed. Think alpha dog, cheetah being faster than the antelope, and all that stuff. Our “old brain” wants to win! Again, comparison kicks in. But I don’t think Mother Nature ever saw Instagram coming!
“Social comparison,” comparing ourselves to others in order to measure our own opinions and abilities, starts when we are children and we discover very quickly that not everyone lives the same life as we do. Some families have “better” things, the latest toys, trendier clothes, and a nicer house than we do. Or maybe there is a family that just seems happier and more loving than our own. As we get older and become teenagers, the comparisons intensify. If we don’t feel like we measure up it turns into negative self-talk as we berate ourselves for our shortcomings.
Left unchallenged, it often results in depression and/or anxiety that we can carry with us for years.
Imagine you had a friend who was constantly comparing you to someone else, someone wealthier, more accomplished, maybe even better looking. Everything you do, every accomplishment you achieve gets compared to this other person – someone who’s done way more and done it faster! Suddenly, everything you consider a win in life gets devastatingly overshadowed by someone else’s (probably a stranger’s) success. Doesn’t sound like much of a friend, does it?
Don’t go the other way either
Downward social comparison is no better. Who wants to hang out with someone who is always telling you how superior they are? Or comparing your life to theirs and calling yours a mess? If you’re on the receiving end, it’s brutal. And if you’re the one dishing it out, to yourself or someone else, it’s presumptuous, judgmental, and based on very narrow criteria. It’s neither kind nor realistic.
We compare ourselves to others in a distorted attempt to stay safe. It’s the old reptilian brain that’s always in the fight, flight, or freeze mode. Ultimately, this keeps you stuck and unhappy. Change what you can. Accept what you can’t. And enjoy the beautiful and rich tapestry created on this planet by the diversity of all our lives.
Admire people, don’t try to be them
Life would be so boring if we were all the same! Do you really want a planet of clones where no one is unique or special? Admire things, people, and achievements you love, but be the best version of you.
Focus on self-improvement, not one-upmanship
If there is something you want to improve, by all means, go for it! But do it because you love it or it’s a goal or a desire, not to beat someone else at the game. We all gravitate to people who do anything with pride and with love, whether it’s singing, cooking, or rocket science.
Compare yourself only to the progress you’ve made
Yes, benchmarks are useful when working towards a goal but we all progress in different things at different rates. Check in with yourself and see how far you’ve come in the last 6 months, or 2 years. Be kind. Change what you want.
Accept where you are
For better or for worse, this is it! You can’t change something you aren’t willing to acknowledge. If you’re unhappy with some area of your life right now, consider it a starting point, not an ending point. Embrace every part of your life, and from that place, you can begin to make decisions that will move you in the right direction.
You’re never the best, nor the worst
Whatever you do in life, there is always going to be one better and one worse, and it’s constantly changing. Whether it’s sports or money or the hottest man or woman of the year, whoever is on top right now probably won’t be for long. This year’s winner is next year’s history. Give yourself a break and take it all with a grain of salt.
Stop trying to be your idols
We admire people of really exceptional accomplishment because it’s really exceptional. If more people did it, it would be ordinary. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg was a self-made billionaire before he was 30, but what if there were a 100 or 10,000 people who did that? The exceptions set new benchmarks, show us what’s possible, and are to be appreciated. You can admire the work of Picasso without being a painter.
Recognize limitations – other people’s and your own
My yoga teacher isn’t great at math but she’s an incredible yoga teacher! I don’t go to her for accounting advice, I go for yoga. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg may be phenomenal at making money but if you have appendicitis, you’ll be begging for a doctor not a billionaire to do the surgery. We all have limitations!
About the Author
Certified Professional Life Coach
Hunter has an M.A. in Psychology and is a Certified Professional Life Coach. For more than 10 years, she coached clients to find and follow their passion and live their best lives. Hunter has also done youth mentoring work with Covenant House, realizing that this is such a challenging and important time in life.
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