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How to stop comparing yourself to other people

It’s totally normal to use happy, successful people as a benchmark, but here’s how to keep it from eating you up.

How to stop comparing yourself to other people
[Photo: Alex Buchan/Unsplash]

Maybe it starts with a LinkedIn notification that your professional nemesis got a big promotion. Or, perhaps you heard through the grapevine that a former colleague landed your dream job. Suddenly, you’re awash in negative emotions like envy, anger, or frustration.

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“Comparison is adaptive and has helped us survive, think, feel, judge, and cooperate. But, like many adaptive psychological mechanisms, there can be a downside,” says Matthew Baldwin, PhD, of the Social Cognition Center at the University of Cologne in Germany. It opens the door for jealousy and, in extreme cases, could even lead to negative actions like sabotaging someone else’s success.

The always-connected world of social media doesn’t help. A November 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that frequent use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat led to greater feelings of depression and loneliness. The researchers found that the carefully curated images can make others feel as though they’re not doing as well or that someone else’s life is so much better than theirs.

Pay Attention to Your Feelings

Those feelings may be an indication that there’s a bigger issue, says Natalie Pennington, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And it’s often related to your relationships and satisfaction with life, in general. “It’s not that the tech makes you depressed, it’s that you already are probably struggling with your relationships and so the tech just makes it worse,” she says.

Cognitive biases also creep into our tendency to compare ourselves to others, online and offline, says Preston Ni, professor of communication studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, and author of How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions–A Practical Guide. Recency bias, the tendency to remember events that happened more recently, and social comparison bias, where we feel competitive with someone who seems to be doing better than we are, can powerfully distort our interpretations. “We don’t know the whole story. We only know what we see, and what we see is completely biased,” he says.

In addition, our attention is often captivated by people who are doing or achieving remarkable things. But, you don’t know the story behind how they reached their achievement, says Toronto-based organizational psychologist and management consultant Michael Vodianoi. And, sometimes, our tendency to take a pessimistic view–possibly because of negativity bias–may extrapolate someone else’s success into something far worse, he says.

“A ‘catastrophizer’ or a pessimist might take that and start to globalize it, or blow it up, and say, ‘You know, nobody’s gonna find me. I’m never gonna get a promotion. I’m not good enough,'” he says.

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Turn Comparison into a Competitive Edge

When used in a healthy way, comparison can be a motivational tool, Baldwin says. If you feel like someone is smarter than you and it motivates you to study for a test, that’s a good thing. The challenge is to keep the negative feelings at bay. Here are steps that can help.

Spend some time with your values. Getting distracted by others’ accomplishments may be a sign that you need to check in with what’s important to you, Ni says. “Ultimately, if you have a strong set of internal best practices or internal values and you are good at what you do, you’re dedicated with your career, you have a good strong likelihood of feeling good about your professional performance no matter what, and it doesn’t matter whether or not somebody gets promoted or demoted. You know who you are,” he says. So, think about what really matters to you.

Acknowledge what’s working. Take inventory of what’s going well in your life, Ni says. Where are you crushing it? What positive accomplishments have you enjoyed lately? Recognize them, even if they’re small.

Compare apples to apples. Look closer at the person or situation, Vodianoi says. Are you really comparing apples to apples? Did the person have connections you didn’t have? Did they have special training or advantages? Examine the evidence you have about what led to another person’s achievement–and acknowledge what you don’t know. The unknown can play a big role in what happened.

Go after the goal. If someone is achieving at a level you want to reach, use them as a model. Study what they’re doing to rack up those accomplishments and integrate those activities into your routine. Discuss the issue with your mentor, manager, or other trusted adviser to explore how you can get there, too.

Build relationships. The most important thing you can do, both professionally and personally, is to focus on building a strong sense of purpose in your life, as well as relationships and interests that give you satisfaction. Pennington says that failing to invest in these elements of a balanced life can lead to giving outsize meaning or importance to others’ good news. Instead, you’ll have many areas of strength and satisfaction from which to draw, leaving you better able to keep the situation in perspective.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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