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How making comparisons to others is not always a toxic habit

Surprisingly, some forms of social comparison can light a fire over deplete.

How making comparisons to others is not always a toxic habit
[Photo: Levi Jones/Unsplash]

Have you ever felt exhilarated about hitting a professional or personal milestone, only to find yourself, less than 24 hours later, having an Instagram-triggered crisis and tumbling down a black hole of “I’ll-never-be-good-enoughs?”

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You’re not alone. In a survey, more than 75% of respondents had recently assessed their self-worth by comparing themselves to other people—and subsequently spent the day in an emotional slump.

The modern world makes it hard not to constantly track your progress against someone else’s. Glassdoor salaries, home square footage, vacation selfies, and your Bumble date’s high school soccer stats can be instantly summoned with a Google search.

Left unchecked, comparison can make you miserable. Seeing people be better at something than you are can feel like a vicious uprooting. But comparison is inevitable;  humans are a relational species, so it’s natural to wonder how you measure up. So how do you curb the downsides of comparison? Counterintuitively, science shows that what makes us miserable isn’t comparison itself, it’s when we don’t compare ourselves to others enough.

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Here are three ways comparing yourself more can actually help you feel better, from our book, Big Feelings: How To Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay.

Pick a broader baseline

Too often, we draw comparisons that torpedo our self-esteem. But chances are when comparison sends you down a dark spiral it’s because you’re not comparing yourself enough. Research shows that we tend to compare our weaknesses to other people’s strengths. If you see a friend hitting a personal milestone, it’s easy to feel you’re far behind in life. But when you compare more comprehensively, things will start to feel more attainable.

Say, for example, you think of 10 or 20 friends or acquaintances. Chances are a bunch will be in the same boat as you–and might even be happily sailing along.

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When Liz started drawing in her early twenties, she didn’t measure herself against other beginners. She compared her work to pieces made by career artists, who had gone to art school and perfected their craft for years. We all fall into this trap now and then. In an experiment, researchers asked people to assess their running abilities. They found that participants spontaneously compared themselves to the best runner they could think of, and deemed themselves not-so-great.

The researchers then prompted the participants to list the top ten runners they knew personally. By reflecting on the seventh or ninth best runner they had rubbed shoulders with, people suddenly felt a lot better. Comparing themselves to a broader group diminished the enormous gulf between themselves and what they thought of as “good.”

Psychologists also find that broadening your perspective can be helpful when you experience what psychologists call “deprivation intolerance,” or when you don’t get what you want, and it causes you to plunge into a pit of despair. The next time you desperately covet what someone else has, swap out the question, “Why don’t I have that?” with, “Do I have enough?” Chances are, you can survive without whatever it is you pine for, and not having it has no impact on your worth as a person.

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Compare the nitty gritty

It’s easy to wish you were making a million dollars a year from the corner office and ignore the responsibilities, stress, and long hours that come with the job. But you need to compare specifics.

When our reader Aya was job hunting during her last year of college, she would often hear about someone landing an amazing position and feel crummy. One afternoon, a friend excitedly told Aya she had gotten a job at NASA. Aya felt jealousy rearing its ugly head, until her friend continued, “…after applying to 90 roles, I can finally relax.” It dawned on Aya that she had only applied to a few jobs so far. “We see people’s achievements easily,” Aya told us. “But the work it took to get there is often invisible.”

Here’s a list of questions to help you make better comparisons:

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  • What would a day-in-the-life look like?
  • What specific pieces of that life do I want?
  • What specific pieces of that life do I not want?
  • What experience does this person have?
  • Am I willing to give up the good things in my current life to have that?

Compare “present you” against “past you”

You may not always be exactly where you want to be, but chances are you’re not where you used to be, either. Pausing to take stock of your accomplishments—and the skills you’ve developed as a result—can help you feel proud of your progress and untangle yourself from malicious envy.

Though reader Eliza has always loved mountains, she avoided running or hiking for most of her life because her asthma left her at a disadvantage compared to her peers. In her late twenties, she finally decided to go for it—even if that meant going for it at a slower pace than most. “I will never be able to hike as fast as others,” she told us. “I’ll always be slower because of my low lung capacity. The only person I can and should compare myself to is me.” Eliza’s persistence and new attitude paid off: just before her 30th birthday, she completed a 5-day hike.

A simple way to make this type of self-comparison a habit is to take a few minutes at the end of each month to reflect on these prompts:

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  • What have I learned over the past few weeks?
  • What was difficult, and how would I approach it differently given what I know now?
  • What progress did I make?

Keep in mind that an important part of the progress you’ve made is what you learned. You might be starting over in a new place, or have switched careers, or left a relationship. That doesn’t mean you’re “behind” where you used to be. It means you’re starting again, this time with experience.

By applying some of the advice listed above, we hope you can learn to prevent comparison-induced crises. In general, a good rule of thumb is to balance comparing up (looking at people who have more than you) with comparing down (looking at those who are worse off than you). And finally, remember that you only see the tip of the iceberg. Someone whose life seems perfect on Instagram may be dealing with struggles that you’re completely unaware of.

How to use regret to craft a more meaningful career for yourself

We feel regret when we think about how our lives could have been better, had we only done something differently. It can overwhelm us, or seem like a burden we’ll have to carry forever. Several readers we spoke with said they often felt mired in the past, stuck mentally replaying moments when they felt they had made the wrong career decision.

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Science shows that no matter what we choose, we’ll feel regret from time to time. Does that doom us to spend eternity slogging through endless “what might have been”s? Not necessarily. And we have more good news: You shouldn’t want to completely stop pining over your past. Without feeling upset over a lost opportunity or mistake, you wouldn’t learn anything.

So while regret can ache, it can also be a powerful internal compass for how to craft a meaningful career for yourself. Learning from your past is one of the most effective ways to set yourself up for a better, less-regret-filled future. Here are three ways to do exactly that.

Look back to make better decisions moving forward

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Twenty years ago, a young lawyer flipped through her law school’s alumni magazine. She landed on a section in which alumni shared career updates. Unsurprisingly, many had continued to practice law. She felt a slight pang reading about some of their prestigious achievements.

But when she read about an alum who had become a full-time writer, her stomach dropped like an elevator. She had long entertained the thought of becoming a writer, but given how much she’d invested in her law career, had always relegated it to the land of daydreams. Now, reading about someone who had taken the leap, she was overcome by regret so powerful it left her on the verge of tears.

This is how New York Times-bestselling author Gretchen Rubin decided to pursue a career as an author. Her career change didn’t happen because of a conversation with her boss or months of visits with a life coach. It happened because she felt desperately envious of someone else’s life–and realized she regretted never pursuing a writing career for herself.

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Regret can teach you what you value; you’re more likely to have an intense reaction when you see someone doing something that you want for yourself–even if you haven’t consciously allowed yourself to want it.

Replace “should have” with “what if”

“Regret can be burned as fuel,” writes author Augusten Burroughs. “To live in regret and change nothing else in your life is to miss the entire point.”

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The next time you find yourself dwelling on a sentence that starts with “I should have…”, try swapping in the words, “What if”? For example, if you think, “I should have picked a job that allowed for more creativity,” ask yourself, “What if I looked for a more creative role?” Then write out a few answers to your question.

Not every regret will perfectly map to this framework. Our friend Jackson once hit send too soon on a half-baked salary negotiation email, which ended up costing him the job offer. The question, “What if I hadn’t prematurely hit send?” only caused him to spiral further into regret. But looking at the bigger picture can still let you pull out a useful “What if” out of the worst situations. In Jackson’s case, he now asks himself, “What if I removed the sender before drafting an email? And what if I slowed down a bit?”

Try to surface the beliefs that you have surrounding your regrets by filling in these statements:

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  • I’m scared that because I did _______, _______ will never happen in the future
  • Since I used to ______, that means I’ll always be a _______ person
  • I still blame myself for doing ______ in the past, and I’ll never be able to let that go
  • I absolutely should have ______

These are common regret-related thoughts—and they’re signs that your self-reflection is turning self-destructive. Re-read what you wrote, and reassess whether those statements are actually true (hint: they’re not). Instead of telling yourself, “I absolutely should have put my name in for a promotion,” ask, “I’m curious why I didn’t do that?” or “What if I had a conversation with my manager about growth opportunities?” Shifting to a more flexible mindset will help you learn from your experiences and treat your past, present, and future self with more compassion.

In general, studies show that we are much happier when we pick what we’re passionate about over what we think we should do. But even if you choose a career that you love, you’ll likely still have moments when your “ought self” hijacks your brain and makes you feel bad. Just knowing what’s happening can help you accept and normalize those inevitable moments—and make it easier to remind yourself that you are on the right path.

No matter what career path we choose, we will all have moments when we experience some level of regret about the roads we chose not to travel. But done right, dwelling on what might have been can serve us. Crying over spilt milk enables us to understand where we’ve come from, how we got to where we are, and where we want to go. Just make sure to limit how long you linger on the past.

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Excerpted from Big Feelings: How to be Okay When Things are Not Okay by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy. Published by Portfolio.

Liz Fosslien is the head of content at Humu, a human resources company, and coauthor of Big Feelings: How to be Okay When Things are Not Okay and No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Mollie West Duffy is an organizational development expert, consultant, and coauthor of Big Feelings and No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.

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