I have a nasty habit. Whenever I see people doing “better than me,” I compare. And then, when I’m done comparing, I despair.
As I started researching joy, I found this habit was destroying my self-confidence, self-worth, and happiness.
Unfortunately, it’s a common habit today, especially with the rise of social media. On social media, we only see people’s filtered lives, which then causes us to create stories in our heads. Even outside of social media, we have television channels like HGTV which cause us to pine for greater things.
Comparison is a problem of today, and if we’re not careful, it could become the main hindrance for experiencing joy. Fortunately, there’s a solution.
Understanding where comparison comes from
Before I share how I’ve been able to battle my “compare-and-despair” habit, it’s necessary to understand what we lose with comparison.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown brings up an important truth about comparison …
“When we compare, we want to see who or what is best out of a specific collection of ‘alike things’… The comparison mandate becomes this crushing paradox of ‘fit in and stand out!’ It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging, and authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better.”
In other words, we don’t compare ourselves to the celebrities we see on screen. Comparison only takes a toll on our spirit when we compare ourselves to our neighbor — or the people just like us.
If your neighbor has a better car than you even though you have a similar job and house, this can spark your “compare-and-despair” habit.
What’s lost in this type of comparison is our creativity. With the paradox of “fit in and stand out” we try to be like everyone else, but just a little bit better. This causes us to deny what makes us unique.
The second thing we lose with comparison is connection.
A recent study done by the University of Pennsylvania found that greater social media use is linked to depression and loneliness. You might be wondering, “how can a platform that’s suppose to connect us lead to loneliness?”
Melyssa Hunt, the author of the study, said this about her finding: “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
The problem here is that people’s lives only seem better. We provide filtered pictured of our lives that aren’t necessarily the truth. The only way we find the truth is through connection offline.
As comparison increases, connection decreases.
How to stop your comparison habit
Knowing that we lose both creativity and connection with comparison, there’s a simple process to combat this.
1. Connect with the object of your comparison.
This was a fundamental shift I had to make in my brain when I wanted to stop my “compare-and-despair” habit.
When we compare ourselves to other people, we want to create distance from these people as a way to protect our egos. We don’t want to feel shame in who we are, and we want to avoid any possibility of that person rubbing their success in our face and causing us to dive deeper into our shame.
But if we lose connection with comparison, it’s best to connect with the object of our comparison. When we connect, we learn the true stories, and learn to stop listening to the story we’re telling ourselves in our brain.
For example, I was recently jealous of the renovations my friend was making on his house. We were in similar fields of work, and even though I had more success than him, I had less money to spare. He was using his success to make renovations, and I compared myself to him.
When I found this was causing disconnection to happen between us, I instead chose to connect deeper with him. I asked him how his life was going, and the answer surprised me.
He was on the edge of burnout. He made sacrifices I wasn’t willing to make. It was much different than the story I was telling myself about him.
The tough action here is to reach out and pursue connection whenever your comparison is getting too heavy. When you choose connection, you learn the true story.
2. Practice second and third level listening.
This step also takes effort. When I practiced connection with the people I compared myself to, I found that I was still spiraling into shame. This was because when I was in their presence, I was still trying to justify myself. My ego was still in a defensive mode.
When your ego is in defense mode, you fall into what’s called first level listening (based on the three levels of listening developed by Co-Active Coaching.
With first level listening, you’re essentially listening to speak. As you’re listening, your attention is on the opinions, judgments, and stories in your head. You’re mainly thinking about what you’re going to say next.
With first level listening, the stories in our head take the stage and keep us in defense mode.
When you connect, you want to practice second and third level listening. With second level listening, you’re listening to hear. All of your attention is focused on hearing the other person, not on your internal story.
Third level listening is the highest form of listening. This is when you listen to understand. In this level, you’re highly aware of the context. You notice when tone, mood, and environments shift, and you respond accordingly. You’re able to best practice empathy with this level of listening.
When you’re connecting with the other person, make an effort to practice second or third level listening. Don’t give any more power to the stories in your head.
3. Bring yourself back to your values.
When I was connecting with my friend, I discovered that his story was different than what I wanted my story to be. This is because he had different values than me.
We are unique individuals with a unique set of values. Comparison forces us to “fit in and stand out,” which causes us to compare ourselves to people with different values.
The problem is, many people are not aware of their values.
In her book, Insight, author Tasha Eurich found that while most people believe they are self-aware, only 10–15% of the population is actually self-aware. Internal self-awareness, which is how clearly a person sees their values, goals, feelings, etc., is often missing.
Internal self-awareness over your values has a positive effect on your happiness. When you know yourself, you know what you want and what you don’t want.
This is important when your “compare-and-despair” habit comes into play. You might be comparing yourself to someone who has different values than you. If you heard their story, you would be reminded that you don’t want their life. It helps remind you that you’re running your own race.
4. Celebrate what’s uniquely yours.
Once you are reminded that you’re running your own race, you can then be thankful for what’s in your life. If comparison causes us to lose our creativity, this is where we celebrate it.
Celebration and gratitude have profound effects on our happiness. For one, celebration increases the chemicals of joy in our brain (endorphins, dopamine, seratonin, and oxytocin), which makes us happy. And gratitude has often been linked to greater well-being.
We often don’t celebrate and be grateful over the things that are unique about our life because we’re too busy telling ourselves false stories about other people’s lives. With the first three steps, you can bring yourself out of comparison. But with this final step, you can use that comparison to fuel joy.
From comparison to celebration
Recently, my brother said something that struck me.
I was deep in a season of comparison. After I let go of my business, I couldn’t help but look around and see more successful people around me. It drove me into intense shame.
When I was telling my brother about this, he responded with this:
“I’ve been comparing myself with people who are further ahead of me too. But then I think, those people don’t have an Emily (his wife’s name). They don’t have someone as amazing, caring, and thoughtful as she is. Puts things in perspective.”
This conversation made me realize: the people I was comparing myself to didn’t have a Carly (my wife’s name).
When you compare, you lose sight of what’s unique about your life. And if you’re stuck in comparison, you stop celebrating this uniqueness.
The night after that conversation, I celebrated my wife. I told her how thankful I was for her and how she was perfect for me. It brought me out of my “compare-and-despair” habit and returned me to joy.
Your life is waiting for you on the other side of comparison. It’s time for you to take these 4 steps and start celebrating what’s unique about your life.