Dodging the Perils of Social Comparison

Part 2 in a blog series about challenging your perfectionist ideals

As we talked about in part one of this series, perfectionists hold themselves to standards that are hard to achieve and are often based on the hallmarks of material success. This will often lead to disappointment because if they are eventually successful in achieving “status” benchmarks, someone else will always have more, or will have done it better.  What does this mean for the budding perfectionist?

Social comparison has long been studied by social psychologists and is part and parcel of being human.

In my practice I often see young people use other people’s accomplishments as a barometer for their own success.  Using this artificial measurement, they feel themselves constantly falling short of their goals, thus increasing their anxiety and feelings of inferiority. Comparing ourselves to the ubiquitous “Jones" we’re all trying to keep up with is an illusion. What matters is that we feel aligned with the life we want to live.  Our core purpose and values should resonate in our soul.

Here are some ways you can avoid this trap and stay true to yourself

Think about your “golden threads” 

I love the concept of knowing your “golden threads”, as suggested in this Harvard Business Review article. Often when we are focused on comparing ourselves to others, we neglect to acknowledge the golden threads, or the traits, hobbies, activities, values and choices we have made. Thinking deeply and with intention about our “golden threads” helps us to think about what we have, instead of what we don’t, as well as find value in our own traits and choices.

When you examine these threads you may realize that your choices are guided by an inner compass that is true to who you are. If you are a free spirit for example, you will not be fullfilled working an 80-hour week in a cutthroat law office constantly striving to be made a partner. This interview with Mastin Kipp, founder of The Daily Love, is a good example of this concept. If you are single, it may be because you value your freedom and choose not to settle for a life partner who will not add value to your life.

Be specific

Often our feelings are a result of what we are thinking, and not a reflection of reality.  We can easily make erroneous assumptions when we generalize. When you are comparing yourself, be specific. If you are feeling down and deflated after scrolling through your Facebook feed, tap into exactly what sentiments you are experiencing.  What was the trigger for these feelings? Is there a basis for it?  If you find social media is a trigger for negative thoughts, consider steps you can take to limit its effects. You also may be suffering from 'compare and despair', where you automatically see the good in others and compare yourself negatively to them.  If you catch yourself doing this, try countering it with a truer and more whole idea of yourself and the person you are comparing yourself to.

Calibrate High

In social comparison theory, when we feel envy it can evolve in insidious ways and wreck havoc on our psyches and relationships.  One outcome is Schadenfreude; we want to cut down those we envy. We may also desire to see bad things happen to celebrities for the same reason. There is a need to try to bring someone else down to equalize the gap between that person and us (in our heads). The problem is that this behavior often makes us feel even worse, and undermines our own efforts to live the lives we want to live.

In my own life, I have always had a desire to run a half marathon in less than two hours. When I see others achieving this, I think “but why not me?"  What is it about this person that helps them achieve this? What’s wrong with me, since I can’t?” The next thought might be, “They must really not have a life outside of running!” This doesn’t really motivate me, but it does get me to connect the dots to realize why I feel this way. For one, I rarely train on a regimented schedule and I often have a second glass of wine the night before my long runs.  I’ve never hired a coach, and I don’t do weekly sprint training. So if I really wanted this notch on my belt, how come I’m not doing what I know would help me towards this goal?  Perhaps it’s because what I truly value is a leisurely, head-clearing run without the hard and fast goal of achieving an otherwise meaningless finish time. Think of your own comparative examples and see if this helps reinforce positive feelings and motivate you toward your own goals.

Dr. Wayne Dyer popularized the concept of how we “calibrate energy” and its contribution to our collective consciousness. We all have good in us and bad in us, no one is 100% monster or 100% Goddess. When you let your own feelings of inferiority, hatred, or jealousy guide your behavior, then you are not calibrating your energy to your potential. When we acknowledge our feelings, and say to ourselves that our actions do matter, that we are all connected and can influence each other positively, we are calibrating to our higher selves.  I like this perspective because it is also forgiving; we are all capable of calibrating low or high. Every day, there are many opportunities and choices we can make to calibrate higher. What choices have you made today?

Know that Money does not buy… Well-being

The connection between money, status, and happiness is summarized in countless studies and has elicited various conclusions based on different definitions of happiness. Don’t compare yourself to others who are (or appear to be) more well-off; consider that even 23% of the super-rich have financial stress and anxiety about money and status. If you’ve seen an episode of the reality show, Real Housewives, then you will see misery abounds, despite the $100,000 handbags on their arms.

It can be more helpful to think about well-being over happiness. Sometimes the things that bring fulfillment, meaning, and purpose do not necessarily make us “happier”. If you make the choice to be a teacher or go into public service, then you know you are choosing to work toward your purpose over working towards what might garner you money, status, or power. Being deeply spiritual or being generous to those around you is what may drive you.  How about the choice for yourself or your partner to stay at home with your child?  This may limit your means but offer richness and rewards beyond measure. There is no “one way” to correctly live your life, and you also cannot simultaneously choose all paths!

Let’s say you find yourself feeling negative thoughts after meeting a friend for lunch that just closed on a new McMansion in the suburbs. You feign excitement for her, then you question, why is this not genuine? And then you realize that the green-eyed envy monster has reared its ugly head. Envy, is a toxic emotion unless it does the following:

  • leads to your ability to examine and thus appreciate the choices you’ve made in your own life
    • you examine your choice to have taken a year off to travel the world and the fulfillment and transformation this brought you
    • You start to think about what you love about living in the city and all the things the suburbs cannot offer
    • These realizations help you feel content about your own life choices. You realize you can’t have it both ways, nor do you want to
  • Motivates you to realize and then take action towards what you also may want
    •  You start to think about living in your cramped apartment and how you long for a garden, pets, and kids
    • You put together a savings plan for that down payment and establish a budget to make it happen  

It isn't easy to resist the urge to compare and despair. We all do it. Looking within is the tougher path but always the more fruitful one that leads to a more balanced life.  Stay tuned for the third and final post in this series, where we will focus on more ways to limit the negative impact of perfectionism on a healthy lifestyle.

Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC. To work with her, connect with her here