Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Escaping the Comparison Trap With Dr. Ronald Siegel
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 379 of Live Happy Now. Whether we admit it or not, most of us spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. What if our true superpower is learning just to be ourselves? I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week, I’m talking with psychotherapist, psychology professor and mindfulness expert, Dr. Ronald Siegel, whose latest research looks at what a climate of self-comparison is doing to undermine our happiness.
His latest book, The Extraordinary Gift of Being Ordinary, looks at the trap of constant self-evaluation, and explains how we can learn to let go of our comparison culture, and live a more satisfying happy life. Today, he’s talking about how we got here, and what we can do about it.
[00:00:51] PF: Ron, thank you so much for being on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:54] RS: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:00:55] PF: This is such a fascinating book that you’ve written, and I think one thing that would surprise people, surprised me right off the bat, is where you say in the foreword, that you yourself were doing the self-comparison and the self-evaluation. I think, anyone familiar with your level of expertise, and what you’ve done would be surprised so. So, how did you come to realize that that was something that you were falling into?
[00:01:22] RS: Well, it’s interesting. The idea for this book came about when I was in my 60s, I’m in my later 60s now. And there I was, having spent a good four decades, actually, involved in meditative practices, mindfulness practices, in particular. Those come out of wisdom traditions that have as one of their goals, to be less self-preoccupied, to be more connected to the wider world, and particularly to be less preoccupied with ego, right? To getting my desires met, or proving myself or self-aggrandizement in life.
At the same time, I have spent at least as many decades working as a psychotherapist, and that involves also in my own training, in my own life, being patient or client in psychotherapy, and working with countless clients over the years, and you would think that fruit of that would be to have something called a coherent or stable sense of self, or as sometimes happens in a lot of Western therapeutic traditions, stable and high self-esteem. And being fairly aware of what goes on in my own consciousness as somebody who does a lot of mindfulness practice, it was quite clear to me that neither of those things had happened. I was neither done with self-preoccupation, nor had arrived at anything like a stable, coherent sense of self.
I mean, I’m not saying that I wasn’t able to function well, in the world. I function quite nicely and I do and accomplish all sorts of things. And I have family and friends and I actually have a rather blessed and good life in that way. But to be honest about what was going on in consciousness, is still quite regularly going up and down in various ways. I would, for example, have a session in which I’m the psychotherapist, and it would go well. It would feel effective. It would feel poignant. It would feel connected. I think, “Yeah, all these years of training and practice, I’m good at this. This is great. I’m a good psychologist.” And then I’d have another session that didn’t go so well, and I’d be back feeling like, “I was a bright guy. I could have gotten into so many fields. This is clearly not my calling.”
Similarly, in other realms of my life, I’d have days or moments where I’d feel like I’m a good, loving husband and other days where I feel like I’m a self-preoccupied lout, as a father, as everything. Just noticing the constant shifts, and the constant hunger for some kind of positive feedback or good feeling. I do a lot of teaching, a lot of training of psychotherapists, and even after all these years, showing up, and if more people show up for the other person’s workshop at the conference than mine, well, this feeling of disappointment or not good enough, where people show up in mind this feeling of, “Oh, yeah, I’m great, I’m capable, I’m confident.” I started noticing that virtually everybody that I work with professionally, virtually all my clients or patients, are struggling with this in some way also, are often feeling somehow, they’re not good enough, and they’re either in one state or another. Either in the state of feeling disappointed, inadequate in some way. Feeling like we’ve failed or not met the mark, or the opposite. Feeling like, “Hey, I’m doing pretty well here”, but then constantly stressed out either pursuing achievements or pursuing feedback from others, trying to feel good about ourselves.
That got me curious as to what the causes were as to what it was based on, and also, what are the antidotes? What are the solutions? How do we live with less of this preoccupation, more freedom, more connection, more joy, more flexibility in our lives?
[00:04:47] PF: Yeah, and I think one thing, people will feel immediate relief that okay, it’s not just me. I think that was the first thing, and then to realize, like wow, there are way more people feeling this way than I thought. As I look at the examples that you created in the book, and it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, so many I can check that box.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s me. Oh, yeah, that’s me.” I think that there was something both alarming and reassuring about that.
[00:05:14] RS: Both alarming and reassuring, I think you put that well. I want to say there’s a mythology in our culture that really adds to the torment. And the mythology is, it’s only losers who have these doubts. It’s only losers that have insecurities. It’s only losers that might have an interaction with a friend and think, “Hmm, was I being too self-centered? Hmm, did they think that I wasn’t being caring enough?” Or who go to the party and feel, “These other people, they’re more accomplished than I am. What do they think about me?” It’s this fantasy that if only we could achieve enough, if only we could be an Internet influencer or entrepreneur, who’s wealthy and famous by the time we’re 30, then we wouldn’t feel these things. It’s just because we went wrong somehow that we suffer from this, and it is one of the steps on the road to freedom from this, is realizing its universality and realizing that we’re really in this together.
[00:06:07] PF: How pervasive is this problem? Is it like pretty much everybody that you know?
[00:06:10] RS: I think it’s everyone who’s ever been born.
[00:06:13] PF: There we go.
[00:06:14] RS: There’s a reason for this. This is actually rooted in our evolutionary history. The brain evolved for survival and for reproduction, and for passing on genes. The way that natural selection works as we the best we understand in the scientific community, is that those random variations in organisms over the years that are helpful for survival and passing on our genes, those are the ones that are going to persist, because those are the organisms are going to successfully reproduce.
Now, why do we care about this? Why did chickens and so many other species organize themselves into what we call pecking hierarchies? Why are there species of crickets that if you put them in a box inside of a few seconds, they’ve got a dominance hierarchy going? Why do kids do this almost immediately, when you add them together into groups? Well, it turns out that those who were more dominant in all these different species had a better chance of reproducing successfully, they had more access to more partners, and they had a better chance of having the resources that they needed for their kids, so as to be able to support them.
We might imagine in ancient history that there were happy hominids, holding hands, singing Kumbaya, focused only on cooperation and love, and none of this kind of competitive dominant stuff. But they didn’t tend to reproduce the ones as efficiently as the ones who were focused on this. So, we got that. And the way it shows up for us in humans, it’s more subtle, we’re not just beating our chests like the chimpanzees do. It plays out at a much more subtle level in fluctuating self-esteem. Every time that we either think highly of ourselves or less highly of ourselves, it’s by comparison, either with others, with our friends, our co-workers, our peers, or it’s in comparison to some image that we have in our mind about who we’re supposed to be or how we’re supposed to be.
So, if I think I’m a good dad, I’m implicitly comparing myself to either a model I have in my mind of what a dad should be, or other actual dads. The same thing for, if I think of myself as smart or strong or weak, or kind or caring. It’s all this comparison, and it’s the same kind of comparison that these other animals are doing in the field of dominance, only, we do it in all these subtle, symbolic ways. So, we are actually hardwired to be concerned with how we rank in the group and how we compare to others. That’s why this is so universal.
[00:08:39] PF: Well, something that we have that the animals don’t, is social media, and the self-comparison, that was already an issue for us. It has been through time. But now with social media, it’s really become amplified. You have an entire chapter on resisting ‘selfie esteem’, which I love that term. But can we talk about what social media is doing to drive this self-comparison and what that is doing to us?
[00:09:08] RS: Yeah, it’s so powerful. I’m on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the story actually comes out of Harvard of this guy who noticed that people are always comparing themselves to others. He came up with the scheme some years ago, where he took the photographs that were on the intranet, the internal network of Harvard, and there were pictures of the undergraduate class, and he took them and he basically posted this on this website that he built, and he had people rate them for who’s more attractive or less attractive, right? Suddenly everybody was into it. All the undergraduates were into it and it took a few days before the university caught wind of what was going on and shut down the website and actually expelled the guy.
Well, the guy was Mark Zuckerberg, and he hit upon this idea that if we can get people to have the experience of getting a like, the sense of the thumbs up like, they’ll do and it’ll motivate a lot, right? Because this gives us this little boost to self-esteem. So, you’ll notice all the social media sites all have some way to either follow, well, that’s a little practical, but also to like or not, posts that other people put on there, and we all become very addicted to this. The psychologists who study this, put people in brain scanners, and they find that the part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, which is our reward center, it’s the part that’s activated from gambling wins, or for that matter, hits of cocaine, lights up when we get a like on Facebook or Instagram.
So, that’s going on, and that’s being monetized, obviously. But it keeps us attached to it. And then there’s the other thing, the way that people curate their images on social media. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of posts on Facebook or Instagram that, say, “Woke up this morning, had the runs again. I’m going to get a bad performance review at work. And I think my partner is going to dump me.” No, it’s, “Here I am at this fantastic place, doing fantastic things, with fantastic people, looking beautiful and you’re missing out.” That is the average post on social media. So, it leads all of us not only craving and being stuck in this addictive cycle of looking for things that are going to boost our self-esteem, but also looking at other people and having our heart sink. If we were countries or nation states, it would be as though we were looking at our own crime and poverty statistics and comparing them to other people’s travel brochures. It’s agonizing. It’s an absolute setup for feeling that we’re not good enough, and then feeling stressed out, like, I got to do more. I got to do more to somehow become a winner, instead of a loser.
[00:11:49] PF: Now, we also know that’s very addictive. So, what is kind of the solution to be able to learn to step away from that? I know, for myself, I made an intentional move to be very mindful on Facebook, and on Instagram, and not post things to be like, “Hey, look at us doing this. Look at us.” It’s like, I’ll post something funny, I’ll post something uplifting, but I won’t post things really about what I’m doing. It’s been an interesting little experiment for me, and I feel it’s helped me. What can we do to – if we’re going to live in that world, but then we want to still maintain our mental health?
[00:12:26] RS: Right. Well, what you’re doing is a really good place to start, right? To actually be – and it’s part of the larger project. The larger project begins by simply taking an honest look at the degree to which our hearts and minds are captured by this worry about feeling good enough about ourselves. And by the whole world of social comparison, by all the ways in which we have thoughts all day long about how am I compared to others.
I’m teaching a workshop here for mental health professionals, and when talking about this idea with them, just saying, how many of you notice since you came here, comparisons coming to mind? Everything from who’s the psychiatrist? Who’s the social worker? Who’s the one who’s running a program? Who’s the one who’s just working in one? Who’s thinner? Who’s taller? Who looks younger? On and on and on, our minds are constantly filled with these kinds of thoughts.
So, the first thing is just noticing this, and noticing how it plays out when we use social media. Noticing when our feeling about ourselves goes up, we sit up a little taller, and our chest stands out a little bit more when we feel, “Yeah, hey, people like me. Hey, they think what I’m doing is great.” Or when we have the opposite feeling and that feeling of collapse. So, it starts simply with observation, with simply being aware of what’s happening, and then really deciding what here is going to sustain my wellbeing, what is a reliable pathway to wellbeing? What is ephemeral and constantly going up and down? When we start realizing that, the likes and stuff and the showing off, that’s very ephemeral. It goes up and down. It means deliberately withdrawing from it. Like, okay, exactly what you’re doing. I’m not going to post these things. “Hey, look at me. Hey, look at how great I’m doing.” And in fact, maybe I’m even going to refrain from too much of this liking other people or not liking other people. Maybe I’m actually going to step back from it. And then what we do instead is look at what are the more sustainable pathways to wellbeing, because the really good news is we not only inherited from our evolutionary history this tendency to be worried about how we’re doing, and this concern with social comparison. We also inherited other instincts that can bring us happiness or wellbeing that are much more reliable and that aren’t zero sum games where our win is someone else’s loss.
[00:14:54] PF: Yeah, and let’s talk about that. What are some of the other like, as you said, the steps that we can take toward changing how we’re approaching ourselves and thinking about ourselves to jump off of this treadmill?
[00:15:06] RS: Sure. Well, one of the most potent things that we can do, and we should talk about self-compassion, because that’s also one of them. But one of the other ones is, and I have a whole chapter with this title. What if we went through life trying to make a connection rather than an impression?
[00:15:20] PF: Oh, I love that.
[00:15:23] RS: So often, when we interact with other people, we’re kind of worried about how we look, how we sound, what they’re thinking, and we’re trying in some way to impress them, even if it’s just to impress them that I’m a decent human being. But what if instead, we had all of our interactions be about how might I connect with this other person? How might I share honestly my experience of being human, and inquire with them about their experience of being human?
Most of us who have had the privilege of having a good friend, have had situations in which we’re talking to our good friend, and they’re being honest, we’re being honest, which usually means talking about our insecurities, or talking about our disappointments, or talking about ways in which perhaps our heart is broken, or we’re afraid of something. In the process, our guard is let down, and our whole sense of self shifts. It shifts from a preoccupation with me to feeling like part of a, we. It’s us, not me and you. That shift in how we experience ourselves, when we’re connected to another human being, is a wonderful antidote to all of this kind of self-esteem preoccupation. Because in those moments, when we’re with a friend that way, and kind of comparing notes and living a life, we’re not so worried about how we’re evaluated. We’re not on that channel. We’re on this other channel, which is that we also evolved to be social animals, social beings, who cooperate with one another, who lean on one another, who had been huddling together in caves since the beginning of time for mutual support. And when we feel that, all this other stuff starts to fall away.
So, one broad avenue to be working in is, how do I connect safely to other people? A really good friend of mine, named Dr. Bob Waldinger, he wears a number of interesting hats. So, he’s a Harvard psychiatrist. He’s actually trained as a psychoanalyst and trains people in psychoanalysis. He’s the head of the Harvard Study on Adult Development, which is the longest running longitudinal study asking the question, what really makes people thrive in life? It’s been going on since 1933, and he happens to be a Zen priest. So, he wears quite a few hats and has quite a bit of wisdom.
In his role as the director of the study of adult development, which has been following this cohort of men, because Harvard was all male back in 1933, and it was this set of some 700 odd men, some of whom were Harvard undergraduates, and some were matched in other ways. But they were poor kids from poor neighborhoods in Boston. And they’ve been following them for all these years, and looking at all sorts of measures of health, blood pressure, lipid levels, that kind of thing, looking at their social lives, looking at their career lives, and really seeing so what does it? What’s important? And Bob would say, “The jury is in. It’s the nature of our relationships.” People who have relationships in which they feel safe and connected with other people, they tend to thrive in life. When we don’t, not so much.
The interesting thing is that the relationships don’t have to be continuously harmonious. It’s fine if we bicker. It’s fine if we argue. But we have to feel like we fundamentally understand and trust one another. That allows us to let down our guard, and it gives us a lot of freedom from the constant stress of this kind of social comparison. So, that is certainly one important thing to be cultivating. Whenever we find ourselves anxious or feeling bad about ourselves, or striving to stay on top, how can I connect other people?
[00:19:01] PF: You give so much wonderful advice, recommendations and insight in this book, but where can people start? Because it’s something we all need and even if we’re farther down the path in this, and are a little bit more evolved and take better care of ourselves with our inner critic, I think we can all work on it. So, where does someone start today to start making that shift?
[00:19:24] RS: Well, I think we start by just watching what’s going on. I spent many years practicing and teaching, you know, mindfulness practices, which many people think of as, well, those are good for reducing stress. And yes, they’re good for that. But they’re even more useful for noticing the patterns of mind that create suffering for us.
So, having some kind of practice where we regularly step out of the busyness of our goal-oriented activity, to just notice what’s going on in the heart and mind, is really helpful because it starts by just noticing, “My gosh, how often these little ups and downs are happening during the day.” And my experience and the experience of others that I’ve talked to about this is when we’re sensitized to it, we notice it’s happening all the time. I mean, in this conversation that I’m having with you, there are moments where the idea comes readily, and I think, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. I’m glad I share that. I hope people will like that.” And then other moment, “Well, maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say.” So, it’s happening all the time, even right here now. We start by being sensitized to it and noticing it, and trying not to despair, if we noticed that these sorts of evaluative thoughts are happening frequently. But that starts with recognizing it.
The next thing is really recognizing that winning is not going to work to make this go away. I’ve worked with so many people who are super accomplished at what they do, and have done wonderful things in the world. But they still frequently feel not good enough, what happens? There are two reasons for this, and if I may include this. This is part of what we need to be aware.
One is that we recalibrate. The things that once floated our boat, stopped working after a little while. We habituate to it. We get used to whatever the thing was that used to make us feel okay about ourselves, and then we wind up needing something more, and just seeing this pattern is really helpful, so that we don’t just keep putting all our energies into this crazy idea that if only I can get it right, if only I can lose five pounds, then I’m going to feel good about myself. If only I can accomplish this or that.
The other reason why the accomplishment doesn’t work is because what goes up, goes down. Let’s say you’re really good at what you do. You’re an Olympic gold athlete, what are the chances of winning the gold in four years? In eight years? None of this is going to last. So, the first is simply observation. And then what we do is once we really see what’s not working, is we start turning our attention to what does work. Making the connection, practicing self-compassion, looking for ways to really give oneself a hug. And in the book, there’s instructions for how you would do this, practicing gratitude, which we haven’t spoken about yet.
In a moment of gratitude, two things are going on. One is, instead of thinking what I don’t have and should have, we’re noticing what we do have. So as a result, we’re not striving for something else. We’re being with whatever is already here. And when we’re grateful, we’re connected, because we’re usually grateful toward somebody or for something. It could be grateful to my parents for the care. I got grateful to my partner for being loving. Grateful for the fact that my body is still working. What a miracle that is. Grateful to have enough to eat. Whatever it is, in the moment of gratitude, we feel connected to something larger. So, that winds up being helpful to us. So, it simultaneously noticing the addictions and noticing what doesn’t work, and then turning our attention toward these other things that are more reliable sources of wellbeing. There are others in the book as well. But those are some of the greatest hits, I’d say.
[00:22:56] PF: That is fantastic. You have given us a tremendous gift with this book, because there are so many wonderful practices, there’s exercises that people can do, and you really walked us through this entire process, and I think it’s something people can use over and over. Because after one read, it’s not going to all go away and I think it’s a constant journey for us, and this is such a wonderful guide book to help us on that journey.
[00:23:21] RS: Yeah. I hope it’s of use to people because I’ve certainly seen the unnecessary suffering that being caught in this has caused me personally, has caused the people I’ve worked with. It seems to account for a lot of what goes wrong in the world, so much of what goes wrong in the world is at least partly fueled by these desperate attempts to feel good about ourselves, sometimes by being above someone else. It’s important for our personal wellbeing, it’s important so that we can get along together in this planet.
[00:23:51] PF: Wonderful words. Ron, thank you again, for taking the time. Again, you have so much to teach us. We’ve gotten just a little taste of it here. We’re going to tell our listeners how they can find your book and how they can find more of the work that you’ve done. But again, thank you for sitting down and for everything that you’re contributing.
[00:24:08] RS: Great. Thank you for what you’re doing and thank you so much for inviting me.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:24:15] PF: That was Dr. Ronald Siegel, author of The Extraordinary Gift of Being Ordinary: Finding Happiness Right Where You Are.
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Siegel and his research, download a free chapter of his latest book, or follow him on social media. Visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
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That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. And until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.