I was 8 years old the first time I had the feeling that I wasn’t good enough. I had just moved schools; all of the other girls at my new school wore designer jeans and took private dance lessons from someone named Miss Barbara, while I went to the community center. The other girls seemed wealthier, prettier, more sophisticated, more confident. I felt like a loser next to them, and so I became desperate to fit in. I would have done anything to be like them and be liked by them. This kind of social comparison led to decades of feeling unworthy, unlikable and just plain not enough.
As a teen I thought, if I could just wear different jeans or make the cheerleading squad, then I would be enough. At some point though, the comparison turned from motivating to self-defeating. For years, I thought I was the only one who eyed other women with envy, who walked into every room and gauged my social standing by seeing others as more than or less than me based on their looks, intelligence and wealth.
Why do we compare?
Comparing yourself to others in this way is crippling—particularly for women. Every time we do it, we devalue our worth and kill our joy. So why do we do it? Thousands of years ago, social comparison may have helped our early ancestors survive. If your neighbors found food or avoided predators, it was an evolutionary advantage to watch them closely and follow their lead. Today, though, this evolutionary benefit is a hindrance. Research from Stanford University and elsewhere has long shown that constantly assessing yourself against others and judging yourself inferior is associated with depression, envy, isolation and low self-esteem. Plus, the more you do it, the more destructive it is because you build strong neural pathways of negativity.
Social media: the ultimate comparison delivery system
These days you don’t need a research study to prove it: Just look at your Facebook feed. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who feels awesome watching everyone else’s highlight reels, but most people feel downright depressed staring at picture-perfect families, exotic vacations and promotions. We need to do what we can to help our adolescent kids navigate through this new minefield of self-esteem killing media.
I’ve put a lot of work into healing myself and regaining my self-esteem and self-worth. The result is a joyous inner peace I haven’t known since I was a little girl (before I moved schools). You, too, can let go of social comparison and feel this way. Here’s how:
1. Have self-compassion
It isn’t your fault that you compare, so be gentle when you do. Love the younger you who created these patterns, then give her a break. She’s done her job and you now can choose another way. Kristin Neff has done great research on self-compassion and has a variety of online tools you can use.
2. Reframe your worth
Your value as a human is not based on what you have, but who you are. Ask your friends what they love about you and repeat that to yourself often to rewire your brain’s automatic thoughts.
3. Get support and heal
Begin a self-care process to heal old wounds. Get support from a therapist or a coach and include anxiety-relief techniques like meditation, acupuncture and lavender baths. Spend time in activities you love and with people who feed your soul.
4. Claim your unique beauty
Would you compare the beauty of a sunset to that of a field of sunflowers? Of course not. They are each beautiful and so are you. Know your unique strengths and build upon them to shine.
5. Be inspired (not defeated) by what you see in others
It is possible to make comparisons in a healthy, positive way. My friend and colleague Emiliya Zhivotovskaya taught me to quote When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what she’s having.” Then create a plan to get it. Positive intention, encouragement and planning lead to goal achievement. One caveat: check in about why you want to be as skinny as Judy or as successful as Joe. If it’s ego, let it go. If it’s meaningful, make it your own and make it positive, such as saying, “I want to be healthy,” instead of, “I wish I were skinnier.”
Whatever you do, decide to end the cycle now. Comparison kills joy and quashes self-worth. Enough is enough! Start loving yourself now, for who you are.
Carin Rockind is a speaker, author and coach with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania.