They say “comparison is the thief of joy.” Understatement of the century.
The modern version should read something like “Looking at pics of your ex-bestie’s engagement ring while stress-eating a pizza will only make you feel worse about your existence.” (Though perhaps that’s not as concise).
It’s no surprise that the more miles our thumbs scroll on Instagram, the shittier we feel. And yet, the moment we feel stressed, bored, or inebriated, we reach for our phone. And thus begins the vicious cycle.
So why do we do it and how do we stop? Read on:
Cara* is a 31-year-old, female who first came to me when she felt “lost” in her career and relationship. From the outside, most people would think she has the perfect life. She has close friends, a growing career in marketing, and a long-term boyfriend with whom she lives. She’s in great health, has no debt, and has a (surprisingly) healthy relationship with her parents (say what?!). Cara, however, didn’t see it that way. She felt like nothing was ever enough.
When friends would get married, coworkers would move on, and her sister had a baby, Cara judged herself as a loser, upset she hadn’t “achieved” the same milestones. She imagined others to be living a happy life, free of the self-doubt she plagued herself with daily. As a result, she didn’t take consistent action toward her goals (her juicer is still in the box, her resume is unwritten, and her running shoes have accumulated more dust bunnies than miles).
In one session, I asked whether she’d ever shared these feelings with her friends, to which she responded “of course not! They would never understand.” And when I asked if she ever posted a less-than-flattering selfie, she had a similar response. I pointed out that if she’s only portraying an idealized version of herself, the same might be true for others. Not sharing the whole picture not only isolates her, but her friends as well. Maybe they, too, share similar self-doubts. That night, she opened up to a friend who had similar feelings of self-judgment when she saw fitness “influencers” on Instagram. Cara and I spoke the next week and she reported feeling closer to her friend and more hopeful about her future.
1. Facts are facts. Thoughts aren’t feelings. Our behaviors are irrational.
Okay, that’s a lot to throw at you. Let’s break it down.
In my work with Cara, we addressed her need to compare herself to others with a 3-prong approach to address: 1) thoughts; 2) feelings; and 3) behaviors.
When something good happens to someone else, we have a difficult time separating facts from thoughts and thoughts from feelings. A fact doesn’t have the power to make us feel badly. It’s the conclusions we draw from them that have the potential to harm us. For example, a coworker getting a raise is a fact. “She doesn’t deserve a raise” or “I should have been promoted” is a thought, not a fact. “I’m a loser” is a feeling, not a fact. “I’m going to re-watch Gossip Girl tonight instead of looking for a job that excites me” is a (totally relatable) behavior.
While people often tell us to remember that there are others who are less fortunate or urge us to compare ourselves to those who we may perceive as “lesser” than us, this negative comparison doesn’t change our beliefs or behaviors. In fact, it’s equally as damaging, keeping us in the competitive mindset of constantly comparing ourselves to others.
Try it: When you notice you’re comparing yourself to others, identify the differences between facts, thoughts and feelings. Have a hard time noticing? Take stock when you use words like “I should…” (I should be married by now); “I wish…(I wish I were thinner); and words that end in –er (She is prettier than I am.) Separating your thoughts from your feelings will allow you to choose behaviors with more awareness, resulting in a better outcome, mood, and mindset.
2. Our outsides don’t always match our insides.
For the past 1.5 years, I’ve been providing therapy to at-risk teenage girls. Needless to say, self-esteem is a recurring theme. One of my favorite tools came from an art therapist I worked with. Seeing its success, I decided to try it with Cara. In session, she decorated the outside of a shoebox with images and words that portray how others see her. She used words like “fierce” with images of adventure and Michelle Obama. On the inside of the box, she conveyed how she sees herself. The imagery was completely different. She depicted a small girl surrounded with the words “stuck” and “alone.” When she finished, we noted that her closest loved ones would be surprised to see the inside of the box, not recognizing this as the Cara they know. She acknowledged that when we compare ourselves to others, we only see the outside of their box. As a result, we base our comparisons and resulting beliefs on half-truths without the whole story.
Try it: While I get that crafting out your feelings might not be for everyone, I highly recommend trying this for yourself. Play some calming music, grab a few old magazines and use this self-care activity to create more connection with yourself and others. Not for you? Challenge yourself by sharing an “in the box” memory or feeling with someone close to you. Remember, vulnerability creates connection.
3. Fill your life with purpose and passion.
As vomitous and pinteresty as that statement may be, it’s true. When you’re doing things you love, you stop noticing what everyone else is doing. And because you’re focused on yourself, when you do notice, you care less.
Try it: Take a class. Try a new hobby. Get back in touch with the things you did before social media existed (assuming you’re as old as I am!) Personally, I started using Goodreads and am back to reading for pleasure. I’m also finishing a course in trauma-informed yoga. Bonus: It’s amazing how much sleep you get when you’re not reading the entire Internet before bed each night!
So instead of comparing your body, bank account, or boyfriend, focus on changing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Recognize that comparisons aren’t based on the whole picture. And lastly, go out and live your life. It doesn’t have to be Instagramable to be worthy of your time and energy.
Speaking of which…while you’re at it, maybe cool it on the social media for a while :)
*Name and identifying information has been changed