“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”
Something I hear frequently from clients is, “It’s nothing compared to what others have gone through.” In other words, my pain is nothing compared to someone else’s pain. In one sentence we invalidate our experience and feelings in the comparison to what we think the other person’s experience is. We deny our difference. It takes us away from our pain and discomfort. Though it may give us some relief, it is short-lived and we tend to feel worse as we keep dismissing our experience and who we are.
Without going too much into theory, psychologists claim that what they call social comparison is fundamental to the human condition. And yes, society teaches us to compare ourselves to others. A healthy portion can motivate and energise us to improve ourselves and do better. It can help us put our life in perspective and recognise our limitations. It can help us regulate our feelings and discover who we are in relation to everyone else. The way we compare ourselves is often unconscious and subtle but it’s immediate in every interaction, in that moment when we notice our difference.
However, comparisons can also be de-motivating, isolating and disconnecting. Some may feel better about themselves by looking to people who seem ‘less capable’, getting a deceptive though short-lived ego boost. They may think that they are better or even superior to the other, separating themselves from rather than connecting with others. Some may compare themselves to people who are significantly ‘better’ than they are which diminishes their self-esteem, leads to despondency and triggers shame. The greater the gap between who we think we are and who we would like to be the greater the shame can be.
Neither way of seeking reassurance and affirmation is helpful in the long run. The focus is outward, towards others to manage your feelings. It hinders you from getting support. Comparisons can distort our perception, blinding us to our own values and diminishing our self-worth. We start to question ourselves. When we feel we are less than others we may feel depressed and want to withdraw and hide. Similarly when we feel we are superior to others we alienate and isolate ourselves from our environment.
So what to do on those days when our self-esteem plummets, when we crave for some validation and reassurance? How can we support ourselves?
Self-esteem is about your general attitude toward yourself. It is about self-acceptance, self-approval and about how much we value ourselves. Healthy positive self-esteem builds confidence.
- Recognising when you compare yourself to others and understanding how it serves you can be helpful in building self-esteem. Do you use it to motivate yourself or to manage your anxiety? What would you be doing if you weren’t comparing yourself to others?
- If it is a way of managing your anxiety than there are more helpful ways to support yourself, such as muscle relaxation exercises, breathing, affirmations and talking to a friend or counsellor.
- Look ahead. Maintain your focus on your goals and what you need to do to get there.
- Try talking to yourself the way you would talk to a close friend. Would you ever say to a friend, ”It’s nothing compared to what others have gone through”, or “Look at others your age, they have so much experience and have achieved so much more”? The kindness and compassion I imagine you find for others needs to be directed towards yourself too.
- You may want to start a Positive You journal, writing down your daily achievements however small you think they may be. Try read it to support yourself through challenging times.
- Put together a pleasurable activities list and act the positive you. Give yourself what you need, what you enjoy and what gives you energy.
- “Don’t compare your beginning with someone else’s middle.” (Jon Acuff) Remember that what seems to be is not always what is. We all move at different pace, we all have our own struggles, and even if you are the same age or share the same background with someone, you do not live their life and cannot know all of their experiences. Many unseen factors play a part, so comparing yourself to them is in fact a futile exercise.