Life coaching expert Tal Fagin says making comparisons is part of life. Her 5 Top Strategies for dealing with Compare and Despair will help you turn it around to your advantage.
Something you said in your last column triggered something powerful in me, an uncomfortable feeling of being exposed. I had never heard of “compare and despair syndrome” before, but as soon as I read those words, I felt my heart speed up and my stomach churn. I am horrified to say this, but the truth is, I am constantly comparing myself to other people—both known and unknown. I measure myself against others in everything from professional success to personal accomplishments to appearance. This isn’t strictly a social media issue for me (though that does make it worse), but rather, something I seem to do in almost any setting, from the gym to the office to city street corners.
Looking back, I have been comparing and despairing my entire life—but I had never stopped to think about it before, let alone name it. Now that I have, it’s making me feel disgusted and ashamed and wondering how to make it stop.
Can you help?
Dear Constantly Comparing,
To compare is human.
From the moment we are born, we are measured against our peers. It starts with things like weight and height, and moves on to other developmental milestones like sitting up, rolling over, crawling, walking and talking. At this stage the comparison game is mostly harmless and largely well-intended—less about bragging rights and more about monitoring our health and well-being. Next up, the school years! The stakes intensify and the pressure mounts. From test scores to appearances, from grades to popularity to athletic ability, we amble to establish our place in the pecking order. As adults, status symbols abound. Home ownership, professional achievements, family life and the like all purport to signal the world something about who we are and what we are made of.
But do they?
Many of us recognize the fallacy, at least intellectually. We hold fast to the idea that our bank account says little-to-nothing about our true value, that neither gorgeous hair nor six pack abs are the measure of a life. Still, something inside seethes with frustration and shrinks in disappointment because compared to So-and-So, we just don’t measure up.
My guess is our tendency to compare is rooted in our DNA. Back on the Savanna, being the strongest, smartest or most alluring were not mere advantages, but matters of survival. We are hard-wired to measure ourselves against others—to compete, to feel threatened by the perceived superiority of another or to take pride in our own feelings of superiority.
Add to this the fact that society shouts at us from every magazine stand, tv commercial and specially filtered Instagram feed, beckoning us to strive ever further and harder toward success and perfection, and we can’t quite help but internalize it all.
Much like regret, however, episodes of compare and despair can have an upside. At best, they can even be channeled for good.
Here are my Top 5 Strategies to do just that:
Own It. Just like you jump when startled by a loud noise or wince when someone throws a punch, your tendency to compare is an offshoot of your survival instincts. Own it. Accept that making comparisons is part of life. When you catch yourself going there, momentarily allow whatever feelings arise. Summon self-compassion, rather than disgust or shame. Try sitting with and feeling your feelings—bitterness, sorrow, jealousy, anger, the works!—rather than trying to deny or snuff them out. Just allow it all to be there, briefly, then turn it around to your advantage.
Get Curious. Why has this particular comparison triggered you thus? What is it about this person you envy or covet or can’t stand? What do they represent in this moment that you feel you are missing out on, or offended by? Go deeper.What are the yearnings or aspirations underneath your judgment or despair?
Focus Deep, Rise Above. Ever notice that a lot of the comparing we do tends to be in the more superficial realm? The pain you feel after comparing yourself to others isn’t really about his lavish lifestyle, her physique, their marriage or anything else about them at all. It is about you. After you get curious and ask yourself the hard questions, shift your attention to the deeper longings discovered above. Prioritize how you want to feel, as opposed to more surface-level, circumstantial desires. You may think you want to lose weight because everyone wants a hot-bod, but what do you really crave? Health? A feeling of strength, power or vitality? What about wealth, what does that represent to you? Security? Comfort? Achievement? Visualize yourself living from that place, feel yourself filled up and content. Then get creative. What can you realistically add to, or subtract from, your life that will help you feel more of what you truly crave?
Get Inspired. Once you’ve identified what you want more of in your own life, go get it. The universe is not a zero-sum game. The success of others does not mean a closed door to you. The major upside of “compare and despair” is inspiration. Don’t sink into those murky, heavy, despairing feelings. Repurpose them. Use that pain or frustration to fuel your own ascent.
Take a Broader View. The comparisons we make to others are always myopic and faulty. Someone may have more money than you, but his health may be in decline. A woman you admire as “having it all” may be mired in some inner hell you couldn’t possibly imagine. Tied up in our tendency to compare, we get both short-sighted and narrow-minded. We limit our perspective to individual aspects of other people’s lives, but fail to see them as whole people. At the same time, we compare their exteriors—the outside image they project—to the interior mess we all sometimes feel. I say this not because you should take comfort or joy in the unseen pain of others, but as a reminder that we are all whole people with complicated, multi-faceted lives. We all struggle, we all triumph, we all grapple with doubts and insecurities. More importantly, I believe we all thrive when we emphasize compassion over criticism, when we recognize that we are more alike than we are different and when we feel a sense of connection and belonging to ourselves and one another.
Before we part ways, Constantly Comparing, I’d like to share just a few more helpful practices you might want to try. I have invented none of them, but have found each and everyone one to be absolutely invaluable. So have countless others. These practices are sure to help you feel balanced, connected and confident. They will enhance your over-all sense of well-being, and take much of the sting out of your oh-so-human tendency to compare.
Gratitude, Gratitude and MORE Gratitude! We are genetically programmed to focus on the negative—on everything that is wrong or possibly threatening, everything that could or should be different and better. Again, this is part of our deeply ingrained survival instinct, but sadly, it also makes us… well, sad. We can, however, train our brains to focus on the positive. Practicing gratitude has been scientifically shown to increase happiness. And the happier you are, the less need you will feel to look beyond your own fabulous life to the perceived fabulousness of others.
Serve it Up. Dwelling in comparison mode tends to leave us feeling lonely, misunderstood, unappreciated and disconnected from our fellow human beings. You can counter all of that by volunteering in your community. Acts of service take you out of your own head and afford you the opportunity to connect with others. Volunteering can give you a sense of purpose or achievement, increase feelings of belonging, boost your self-esteem and can even be fun.
Get Out. Being outside in nature—taking time to gaze at the stars, admire a bird in flight or contemplate the trees—helps us gain perspective. It reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves and has been proven to improve moods. The same is true of encountering great works of art. Next time you feel yourself sinking into despair, step away from the situation you are in and try getting some fresh air. Take a walk or visit a museum. Connect with the world around you and all that it has to offer and see if you don’t emerge feeling just a bit lighter.
Go Inward. No column would be complete without a nod to my favorite cure-alls—yoga and meditation. In my experience, these practices work wonders in helping with just about anything and everything. In your case, Constantly Comparing, moving your body, focusing on your breath and distancing yourself from your thoughts—not just quieting the mind but learning to identify thoughts as “just thoughts”—may be exactly what you need. Both yoga and meditation allow you to get more intimate with yourself while building resilience and self-esteem. They teach us to accept and embrace ourselves as we are, and in the process, we tap into a deep well of self-worth that drowns out our more superficial doubts and insecurities.
To compare may be human, but I believe the despair part is optional. Learn to catch yourself going there, and try using any or all of the above to propel yourself onward and upward.
And please do let me know how it goes.