There’s a famous 2008 study in which two capuchin monkeys were placed side by side in glass cages and prompted to complete the simple task of handing the scientists a pebble. In exchange for correctly following instructions, one of the monkeys was rewarded with a cucumber, which she was perfectly happy to accept…until she noticed that the other monkey received a grape (i.e., a sweeter, yummier treat). Outraged over this inequity, the first monkey literally HURLED the cucumber back at the scientist and rattled her cage in protest.
As Theodore Roosevelt once wisely said, comparison really can be the thief of joy. And yet, it feels impossible to avoid — it’s an impulse that is equal parts primal (as demonstrated by the monkeys) and destructive. It’s the twisted oxygen that breathes life into an infinite number of angsty conversations I’ve had with friends, coworkers, strangers I’ve never met on Instagram and even internally with myself, spanning everything from career to relationships to body image.
If the urge to compare is too strong to ignore, if we’re always our own worst critics, what’s the secret to contentment? Is there an effective means of lessening the sting of feeling less than, or maybe circumnavigating it altogether? I turned to Dr. Lisa Firestone, a practicing clinical psychologist, for some expert advice. Read her five tips for dealing with comparison below, and meet me in the comments to discuss further.
1. Examine where the urge to compare yourself might be coming from.
“Oftentimes our parents compare us to others, whether it’s a sibling or another child, and that plants the seed in our heads,” says Dr. Firestone. “A woman recently came to one of my workshops, and her mother would always say things to her like, ‘You’re prettier than those other little girls’ or ‘You’re smarter than those other little girls,’ mostly because she wanted to be the mother of the prettiest and smartest little girl. It was more for her than for her child. Now, any time this woman goes into a room, even in her 40s, she compares herself to everybody there. I mention this example because it shows how important it is to think critically about why we compare ourselves and when. Picking that apart and identifying the source or the origin can be helpful in diminishing its power.”
2. Channel your impulse to compare into something productive.
“When you’re jealous of a trait or behavior that someone else possesses, think of it as an opportunity for self-improvement — not in a self-critical way, but in a self-compassionate way,” says Dr. Firestone. “With the right perspective, making observations about other people’s success can actually be empowering. Instead of asking yourself why you don’t have what they have or haven’t accomplished what they’ve accomplished, ask yourself what you can learn from them.”
3. Be mindful of how social media can falsely exaggerate perfection.
“Social media has given us access to comparison all the time, 24/7,” says Dr. Firestone. “You used to only hear about the successes and failures of people you knew personally, but now you’re hearing about everybody all the time. Not only that, but people have a tendency to want to share only their best parts on social media, which paints a skewed picture. It feeds into our fear of missing out, our fear of not having enough or not doing enough. Everyone can smile in one photo on their vacation, but that doesn’t mean they were happy the whole time.”
4. Keep a journal of your critical inner thoughts.
“When you write down your critical inner thoughts and start to unpack them, it’s easier to tell when they’re distorted,” says Dr. Firestone. “You’ll start to poke holes in what they’re telling you about yourself. This is an exercise I often engage in verbally with my clients. I see a young man who tends to compare himself a lot, especially to his roommates because they’re well-employed and making a lot more money. But when I started challenging what his critical inner thoughts are saying, like asking if he even wanted to be in the same field as his roommates, the answer was ‘no.’”
5. Spend time around people who genuinely care about you and make you feel good.
“Friends or family members who make you feel like yourself — those are the people you want to be around,” says Dr. Firestone. “However, I don’t mean you shouldn’t spend time with people who help you grow. Find people who appreciate you just the way you are but also help you problem-solve when you need it or push you out of your comfort zone. Explore activities that make you feel capable and fulfilled. Focus on creating meaning in your life instead of constantly trying to measure up to an intangible standard of your own invention.”
Photo via Getty Images.