A coaching client was telling me about a mini-break with friends. She’d been going through a lot over the past months and it hadn’t been a sociable time. The weekend with their friends was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of how it feels to genuinely step away and relax. Overall, it was good for her confidence, but there was a lingering sense of self-criticism and shame that she’d brought home from the trip.
“They’re all taking good care of themselves, they’re healthy. They’re obviously making the effort with exercise and nutrition, and it shows”.
This is a mixture of observing facts, making up a narrative about the other people, then turning it inwards to create some conclusions about self. In this case, the painful conclusions about self were along the lines of “I look shit, I’ve been lazy, I’m crap at being healthy”.
The net result is a drop in motivation and a dilution of the – otherwise positive – impact of the social connection.
I often see a kind of ‘whipping up’ of the resulting feelings of insecurity and shame, where we try to use the comparison to push ourselves into action. “Ok, I’m shit and unhealthy. Let’s go, let’s get into action to be more healthy, get out for a run, go on a diet, GO, GO, GO!”. Does this work over a sustained period of time? Nope. It’s the land of highs and lows, self-punishment and reward, failed diets and vicious cycles.
Once we spot the net result of comparison, it’s common to try to stop doing it. I don’t want to cause myself that kind of pain, so I just won’t do it. I’ll be equanimous, I’ll see the beauty in others without judging myself poorly, I’ll curb my sense of superiority when I come out favourably in my own game of comparison.
This sounds good, but it’s just denial. Social rank theory suggests that comparison is connected to essential human survival mechanisms. Dr. Chris Irons (Balanced Minds) says:
“Regardless of the type of ranking style being focused on, social comparison is the mechanism that allows us to track ourselves in relation to others. In this sense, it’s an essential component for navigating interpersonal interactions, work and social relationships more generally.”
So, if we’re unlikely to evolve past or stop comparison – what gives? How can we acknowledge the natural tendency for comparison, but find a less painful – potentially even generative – experience of it?
Here are my coaching tips for acknowledging and allowing comparison to run its course, whilst harvesting the insights and growth that it can offer you along the way.
Comparison reality check:
At times, our comparison-based conclusions are accurate. This person is doing 30-minutes of exercise 4 times a week. I’m doing next to none. It’s just true – but where do we go from there?
We tend to take the known facts of a comparison and bolt on a whole slew of assumptions. Not only are they doing exercise 4 times a week, they’re probably drinking a green juice every morning and sleeping well. I bet they’re having amazing sex.
Then – once we’re really on a roll – we pop some imaginative conclusions on top of our assumptions. Given this cocktail of facts and assumptions, I swiftly conclude that this person is more motivated than me. And that I – by comparison – am lazy and fundamentally shit. I will never be like them, but I must try harder.
These conclusions often incorporate various levels of cognitive distortion. In this case, some black-and-white thinking with a touch of catastrophe.
Notice when you are comparing. Pause. Write down the sequence of events, the triggers and your thoughts and feelings. Dissect them. What are the actual facts? What are the assumptions? What were your conclusions, and what are the cognitive distortions at play?
What does the comparison show you?
If you took away the ‘me vs. them’ aspect, what are the features of the comparison? If you and the other people – and your relative achievements – are the characters on the set of a play, what’s the title of the play, and what does the set look like?
There will be some continuum or spectrum that you are placing yourself and others on. Perhaps you are deciding your relative positions on a spectrum of attractiveness, confidence or health. Perhaps on an even more specific spectrum like artistic talent or clear communication.
Without the judgement about where you and others fall on the spectrum – what does the nature of the comparison tell you?
For example, if I meet someone who’s truly gifted at maths or football, that doesn’t spark a loaded comparison for me at all. I can easily celebrate their achievements in these areas without getting in a tangle around my own self-image. If the client I spoke about above didn’t highly value physical health and appearance, or if they weren’t high priorities for her right now, the comparison wouldn’t sting.
So what’s the comparison showing you? What does it show you about your values and current priorities? Without adding extra self-judgement, what needs more attention in your life?
Sometimes, it’s not the above specifics that need your attention. At times when your confidence is low, or you’re running on empty, there can be a general vulnerability to a downward spiral.
In the story above, this client had been going through a lot. She was in a phase of big changes in many areas of her life, and her main focus was internal. Her energy was going into grieving, adjusting and orienting to her new experience. It was appropriate that there wasn’t heaps of external achievement, and that she wasn’t coming on in leaps and bounds with big health goals.
It’s painful and isolating sometimes to be in these tumultuous phases. It’s not wrong, and it’s not a reflection on any personal defects of character. But the progress you’re making is not necessarily visible to others, or even to yourself when you’re ‘in it’.
Taking tentative steps back to social connection or achievement requires a lot of care and compassion.
If you start to compare yourself only based on external qualities or action, it gives a skewed sense of reality. When you’re feeling a bit fragile already, that can accelerate very easily into a shame spiral.
Broaden your focus to remember the circumstances you are dealing with, the qualities you are developing and the strengths you have.
What makes sense about your current focus? Who are you being? What is dictating your current priorities? What – perhaps invisible or subtle – achievements are you working on, and why?
It may not be possible to bypass social comparison, but you can coach yourself through it and turn it around. Comparison can be your teacher rather than your punisher if you take the time to pause and reflect.