When I was 8, all I wanted for Christmas was a Rollerblade Barbie. And when I found her sitting next to my stocking on Christmas morning, I was thrilled. I felt like it was the perfect day, and contentedly played with my Barbie until later that afternoon. I went to my friends’ house and we compared notes on our Christmas hauls. She had gotten a Rollerblade Barbie too. She’d also gotten her own roller blades, and sparkling pink knee pads, not to mention Roller Barbie’s boyfriend Ken and a pack of Barbie dresses.
And suddenly my Christmas wish come true… felt a lot less magical.
We learn from a young age to compare ourselves to others. It’s not always harmful. Often, it’s our greatest motivator to grow and develop. But unchecked, comparison can also undermine joy and wallop our emotional wellbeing.
Comparison Drives Social Dynamics on Every Level
The complicated problems of social comparison come early in evolution. A landmark study at Emory University gauged capuchin monkeys’ reaction to unfair treatment by feeding them different treats. When the staple food was cucumber across the board, all of the monkeys were content with their share. However, as soon as some lucky monkeys started getting nice, sweet grapes, the remaining subjects (who were able to view the discrepancy) started to despise their cucumbers, even tossing them back into the researchers’ faces.
Mark Twain said that comparison is the death of joy. It’s easy to see real-world illustrations of this, far beyond the behavior of children and monkeys. It’s one of the major tensions of the workforce, of political conflict, of family relationships. Over and over again, science has verified this correlation: grateful people are happy. Envious people are unhappy. But how can we make ourselves be those happy grateful people instead of the green-eyed grumps?
Modern America Is The Perfect Environment for Comparison
Our modern media-saturated world makes comparison more inevitable than ever. In fact, we can pick our poison for vicarious living and quickly watch our own lives pale in comparison. Feeling good about your financial status? Watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians and kiss your satisfaction over your nest egg goodbye. Looking for love? Watch The Bachelorette and see one girl choose between a dozen handsome suitors. All it takes is a few minutes of television for us to kickstart envy’s vindictive reign over our emotions.
It gets even more alarming when it’s not just Hollywood that’s putting our lives to shame. Real people on Instagram are always doing life better than you. Their kids are better dressed, their meals are more beautiful, and they’re traveling to more exotic and exciting locales than you’ve ever experienced in your life.
Here in America, one of the richest nations in the world, in a time when our quality of life puts royal luxury of the Tudor era to shame… we feel cheated.
Researcher Brene Brown points out an interesting thing that exacerbates the problem of social comparison. She calls it scarcity culture. Although we have more leisure time, more health, and more opportunities for growth and wealth than any other period of time, we never feel like it’s enough.
“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next one is ‘I don’t have enough time.’ … We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough wilderness. We don’t have enough weekends. Of course, we don’t have enough money – ever.”
This scarcity culture makes comparison especially scary because we believe that each of these resources that we don’t have “enough” of has a fixed value. If someone else has it, then we have less of it available to us. If they have more money, then we have less. If he has more dating prospects, then he’s taking mine. If her children are perfect, mine are less so.
Practical Tips for Avoiding the Social Comparison Trap
In a way, comparison is a necessary ingredient of being part of a society. It pushes us to succeed. But it can also be the pitchfork at our backs spurring us into anxiety, and depression.
So, next time you find yourself scrolling through your newsfeed and feeling woefully inadequate when compared with your acquaintances who have perfect careers, marriages, and kids, remember this:
1. Every person is such a complex and unique mix of memories and attributes and factors, we can never get a direct comparison. You are too unique to stand side by side with someone else and find that you are similar in all things, except for this one specific thing wherein you fall short. It’s never true. You have your own set of unique strengths and weaknesses. For everything that you envy in others, there’s something of yours that they wish they had.
2. You’re comparing your weaknesses to others’ strengths.
3. You’re judging off of inaccurate information. Reality shows are not reality. And those glossy photos on Instagram are not telling the whole story.
Here are some helpful tips to curtail comparison in your own life:
- Be patient with your own imperfections. We’re all works in progress.
- Love genuinely so that you can rejoice in others’ accomplishments.
- Practice gratitude. Do small things that remind you of your own assets and blessings.
- Watch the words of your internal dialogue. They affect us more than we realize. Be wary of anything that includes “I should” or “better than me.” As this article states, the words we say and think have a powerful mental effect – either making us feel stuck where we are, or empowering us to move forward. This is also something our children learn from us, so guard your words.
- Stop looking. If it’s killing you to see that perfect Insta feed, shut it out of your life.
- Compare with yourself instead of with others. The only person you should compare yourself to is who you were yesterday.
- Serve others. In most religions, we’re taught that the only reason that we have good things is because they’re given by God. We’re also taught that the purpose for those good things is so that we can help others. Whether or not you’re religious, it’s a smart principle. Practice gratitude for your gifts by sharing them. It will help you realize how much you have.
- Be kind to other people. It’s a habit. Being more compassionate towards others can help you learn to be more compassionate towards yourself. We often think that it’s the opposite, but it’s not true. Soon, you should be able to be your own friend. What would you tell a beloved sister in the exact same situation as you? You’d probably be much more encouraging to her than you are to yourself.