In my coaching business, I often hear: “I know I shouldn’t compare myself to anyone else, but even when I try really hard, I still find myself doing it.”
This is usually followed by self-judgment, even shame, which sounds like: “After all these years of personal growth I can’t believe I still feel “less than” when I hear about my colleague’s success. I should be more evolved than this!”
Over the past 10 years, I’ve had countless conversations with women entrepreneurs that have started just like this and it’s clear to me that evaluating our lives, businesses or bodies against someone else’s is more than just a bad habit.
I feel so passionate about this topic that I dove into some research to better understand why even the most intelligent, self-aware, self-evolved women still find themselves comparing their experience to that of their peers; feeling like their talents and accomplishments are not enough; and then judging themselves for not being more evolved or confident in the first place. It’s an icky cycle.
Most entrepreneurs jokingly refer to this behaviour as ‘Compare and Despair’ and will admit to feeling occasional pangs of not measuring up when comparing themselves to their peers or colleagues.
I get it. I’ve felt this too, especially the self-judgment that I should know better. I’m a confident woman and I feel so much gratitude for every aspect of my life but every now and then I still catch myself comparing my accomplishments to those of my peers and feeling little pangs of ‘I’m not enough’.
The Science Behind Compare and Despair
The late social psychologist Leon Festinger, named what we jokingly call Compare and Despair the Social Comparison Theory, a process by which people come to know themselves by evaluating their attitudes, abilities and beliefs in comparison to others.
You see, your brain will always look for a way to evaluate how you’re doing in just about every aspect of your life (physical, career, motherhood, spiritually, relationships etc.) and in the absence of any standardized data you will search out the experiences of others to create reference points.
As we search for external reference points with which to evaluate ourselves, we tend to put way more attention and emphasis on who has more of what we think we should have (upward comparison) rather than on who has less of what we think we should have (downward comparison). We will also focus more on those who we consider similar to us rather than those who are different.
Eg.: A new coach is more likely to make upward comparisons of a fellow new coach who appears to be skyrocketing her business, rather than compare herself to a coach who’s been established for 10 years.
When we compare our _________ (insert anything here from Instagram followers to bank account to the size of our jeans) to that of someone else’s, we tend to rank where we think we stand in relation to an idealized version of where we think we should be. And since we have a habit of comparing upward, we keep seeing a gap of “not enough”. Not enough talent; not enough knowledge; not enough creativity; not enough hard work; not enough individuality; not enough exercise etc. Not enough can feel like defeat, envy, anxiety, depression, resentment and a whole host of other demoralizing and sometimes paralyzing feelings.
Some people get derailed at this point. I’ve seen a bout of Compare and Despair knock the wind out of even the most evolved, mature, and intelligent women.
And It Goes Like This
The cycle might start like this: you’re scrolling through Facebook scanning the status updates of your peers –especially the peers you feel most similar to –and you read about the BIG Thing that just happened to them. Without even realizing that it’s happening, you compare their success to your current experience and decide your accomplishments don’t measure up to their accomplishments. You suddenly feel ‘not enough’. This may feel like a sickening feeling in your tummy, a pang of resentment, a moment of panic, or an overpowering sense of defeat. You might even ask yourself: what’s the point? why even bother?
This emotional response might last a few minutes or a few days (maybe even longer) depending on the tools you’ve cultivated to shift and reframe your own thinking.
Can We Stop Social Comparison?
So now what? If this is human nature, which means we have an innate drive to evaluate our attitudes, abilities and beliefs, how can we ever end the cycle of Social Comparison?
I’m not convinced we can.
But maybe we can shorten it. Maybe we can find ways to lessen the impact, lessen the discomfort, the suffering and the feelings of inadequacy when it happens.
I don’t have all the answers but I’m happy to share the approach that I use when I feel triggered. This is what helps ME. If there’s anything here that helps you, please use it.
How I Minimize the Impact of Compare & Despair:
Trigger happens. Typically, the trigger occurs via social media (or in the past, it frequently happened via a colleague’s newsletter announcement—note: unsubscribing helps!). I would read about their recent accomplishment or an upcoming opportunity and in a nanosecond I would have compared my experience to theirs.
The first sign occurs in my body. I feel myself tighten. My breath gets shallow. I feel a slight falling sensation.
Then, my head catches up to my body and when I pay attention I can hear a story start to take shape. The story usually ends with “oh why even bother?” It’s a generalized statement directed toward my business. In one sweeping evaluation of myself against someone else’s achievement/opportunity I momentarily consider throwing in the towel.
And then I catch myself. And my compassionate, rational brain steps in and lovingly says: Isn’t that fascinating?
Isn’t that fascinating I’m feeling so triggered right now?
Isn’t that fascinating I’m considering throwing in the towel?
Isn’t that fascinating I’m comparing myself to her (again)?
Instead of judging myself I allow myself to feel fascinated. When I’m fascinated I respond with love and curiosity instead of defeat and despair.
My next step is to bring my focus and attention back to what’s most meaningful to me. I do this by sitting quietly and asking myself a few powerful questions.
- What do I really, really want?
- How will I know when I get there? What will it feel like?
- At the end of the day, what truly holds meaning for me?
- What have I learned?
- Where have I grown?
THE NEXT RIGHT ACTION – FOR ME
Once I truly feel connected to what’s most meaningful to me, I choose the next right action for me. This may be something simple like unplugging from social media for a few days because I’m being over-stimulated or distracted. Or, it might look like sitting down to write a blog post, or phoning a friend, or taking a walk in the woods with my dog. Or it might be giving myself permission to book that trip I’ve been longing for.
That’s it. That’s how I minimize the impact of a completely normal human behaviour without allowing it to totally derail me. So far, it’s working. I haven’t once thrown in the towel in 10 years of business!
Notice. Wonder. Experiment. Find the strategies that work for you. Most importantly, find a way to let go of judging yourself when this happens. Try fascination instead! Focus on minimizing the impact of comparing upward because that may be the best we can do.
And maybe that’s enough. xo
Over to you
What’s your experience with Social Comparison? What helps you minimize the impact when you catch yourself feeling like you’re not enough? Would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.