Someone else’s job title, income, new home, seemingly endless vacations — the categories in which we can compare ourselves to others are endless. While some level of comparison can be healthy, it can also become a fast track to unhappiness when you’re constantly glancing over at what others have and comparing everything about where they are in life to where you are.
This form of negative comparison can bring along with it feelings of pain, envy and resentfulness. In the age of social media, it can feel hard to avoid. That being said, it is possible to shift your perspective — keep reading for advice from the experts on how to protect your mental health.
How can comparing ourselves to others affect our life?
First and foremost, let’s talk about how the way in which we compare ourselves to others can have quite the negative impact. Kelly Anderson, Ph.D., group practice owner of Wellness Therapy of San Diego, shares that when people compare themselves to others they usually use what’s called an upward comparison.
“This is when we compare ourselves to people with more — more wealth, more friends, more youth, more beauty,” Anderson says. And since it’s easy to spot what others have and what you don’t, this can lead to expected feelings like envy, but Anderson notes it can also increase feelings of “sadness, worthlessness and an overall dissatisfaction with our lives.”
So how can I work on comparing myself to others less?
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, speaker and author of both Joy From Fear and Date Smart, outlines five helpful steps to try if you’re focusing too much on what you feel your life is missing, and points out that if you’ve become acclimated to constantly comparing yourself to others, it’ll take some time to rewire your brain to not engage in the negative comparison game. Here are her suggested techniques:
- Build an awareness: Manly shares the first step is to notice without judgment when you’re comparing yourself and that the more aware you become of your tendencies, the more you’ll feel you can actually witness the behavior (as a researcher might) without getting drawn into it.
- Notice your triggers: Next, the aim is to notice the triggers that instigated the comparison, for example, perhaps a certain social media app or social situation (like a fitness class or work function) tends to trigger a comparison. Once you’re familiar with your triggers, you can learn to practice mindfulness when these moments pop up which leads us to the third step.
- Practice mindfulness and reframe those thoughts: Now that you’re more aware of your tendencies and triggers, Manly tells Lively you can choose to replace the comparison-oriented thought with another one, for example, if you find yourself comparing your body to a photo on Instagram, replace the negative thought (e.g., “I could never look that good”), to a kind self-statement such as, “I really love my authentic self.” She adds that although you might not initially feel the truth of your kind self-statement, the words will feel more natural and authentic as the toxic voice of comparison subsides.
- Reduce triggers: You may ultimately wish to lessen or let go altogether of certain triggers that contribute to negative comparison. “In truth, why would you want to expose yourself to anything that makes you feel less than terrific about your wonderful self?“ says Manly.
- Engage in positive self-talk: Finally, make it a habit to pause every day—several times a day—to say something truly kind to yourself. For example, you might say to yourself, “You did a great job on that project,” “You are a kind soul,” “Thank you for being such a caring person,” or “Wow, you really are getting more patient over time!” The more positive your self-talk becomes, the more you’ll drown out (and eventually extinguish) the voice of toxic comparison, Manly explains.
Do you have any suggestions for using social media more purposefully?
There’s no doubt that social media is likely one of the common triggers when it comes to social comparisons, so we turned to our experts for some tips about purposefully using these types of apps. Be mindful and intentional before clicking on a social media app. You may even find it helpful to put these apps in a harder-to-reach place on your phone such as in a folder (in order to avoid mindless clicking and scrolling), Anderson suggests. Another one of her tips is to set a reasonable limit for daily social media use and to work on cutting it back by half over the next several weeks.
Dana Glauser, life coach and CEO of A Fit Mind - Life Coaching With Dana, highlights that it’s important to take a look at the accounts we’re choosing to follow and ask ourselves if they’re helpful or harmful to our mental health. “I think it is important to remind ourselves that we can choose to unfollow accounts at any time, but if we are choosing to follow, we need to ask ourselves why are doing so,” she shares, adding that she believes self-esteem exploration and work around self-esteem building can contribute to improved mental health and serve as a buffer against the impact of negative influences (like comparison and judgment).
Is it possible to pivot the “comparison game” into something positive?
Our experts agree that it is indeed possible to reframe our thoughts of comparison into something positive. “Once you’re better able to observe your thoughts of comparison, rather than automatically believe they’re true, you can start to examine them with curiosity and compassion,” says Rachel Mintz, LCSW with Thrive Psychology in Chicago, who also points out that while you may deem some of these thoughts to be unhelpful or nonsensical, others may give you valuable insight about an unfulfilled need or personal value you’re not living out. She gives us the example of scrolling through social media and noticing your friend has gone on another vacation which might lead to thoughts of jealousy and feeling like you never go anywhere.
“Upon examining these thoughts with curiosity and compassion, you may find that you value learning about other cultures, but currently aren’t taking any actions that allow you to live out this value — you can take this knowledge and brainstorm how to incorporate it into your life with greater intention which could look like traveling more, learning another language, visiting cultural museums or perhaps taking an anthropology class.” Mintz says.
Can developing a gratefulness practice help with being less vulnerable to comparison and envy?
Finally, our experts agree that something as simple as developing a gratefulness practice can really help with becoming less vulnerable to comparison and envy. “A gratitude practice is a type of mindfulness practice that helps us to become more present in the moment and aware of the small joys that we have/appreciate in our life,” explains Glauser. “If you regularly think about and take time to appreciate what you have, this primes your mind to remember these things when the opportunity for comparison arises,” adds Anderson. Her recommendation? “Even writing down three things you're grateful for daily can go a long way.”