Eyes On Your Own Paper: How to Avoid the Comparison Trap

woman in striped shirt looks down at her phone

Raise your hand if you went on social media today and felt bad about yourself.

Trust me, you’re not alone. In fact, social media seems like it was intentionally designed to be a constant carousel of other people’s dream homes, vacations, and photogenic family members while also shining a big, bright light on our flaws and insecurities.

Between Facebook announcements and seeing an acquaintance’s promotion on LinkedIn and picture perfect Instagram posts, is it any wonder that we feel like we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others and falling short?

Yes, comparison is natural, but it can also feel draining and toxic. And as writer and career coach CJ McClanahan says, comparison can turn your life into a “win-lose struggle,” where you start to view the people around you as opponents and your achievements as points on a scoreboard, when the fact of the matter is no one is keeping score...except maybe our own selves.

Comparing can lead to big, intense (but natural) feelings so we need a structured way to examine these thoughts and then move forward.

Instead of comparing ourselves to others, which can lead to unhealthy fixations and even sabotaging our own goals, we need to find a way to adjust our thinking.

Here are some tips and strategies that you can use to avoid falling down a rabbit hole of comparison, and instead, help you find ways to celebrate the amazing person that you are.

Let success inspire you, not defeat you

When others achieve success, it can sometimes feel like a comment on your own progress or a confirmation of your own defeat. We think, “Oh they got a promotion, and it's been years since anything like that happened to me. I'm a failure.” 

While these emotions are understandable, we have to remember that they are also false. If anything, other people’s achievements remind us that it *is* possible to succeed and that what we want is within reach.

If they can do something, you can do something too. 

Do you know the story of Roger Barrister? In 1954, he was the first person to break the record for running the mile in under 4 minutes. At that time, it was widely believed that running a mile under 4 minutes was not only impossible, but dangerous. But not only did Barrister break that record, he broke the mental barrier surrounding it. 

His achievement helped broaden people’s perceptions as to what was possible. In fact, after 46 days, another runner beat Barrister’s record.

That runner could have easily given up and shrugged, “Oh, well, that other guy already beat the record. I should just abandon my dreams.” But instead, he saw Barrister’s record breaking run as a confirmation of what he himself could achieve. 

So the next time you feel defeated by someone else’s success or great news, allow yourself to view this achievement as a sign of possibility. If they can do it, you can do it.

Opportunities are not limited: they are infinite

Here’s a familiar scenario: you’re scrolling through Instagram and see someone else’s picture perfect house or exciting news about a career milestone, and you start racking up all the things you don’t have and how far behind you are compared to everyone else. 

First of all, we don’t know the real story behind people’s posts. Behind every announcement or magic hour photo, there is a real person who experiences anxiety and nerves and stress just like the rest of us.

We also don’t see the tremendous amount of work and sacrifice that probably went into their achievement (and their post) -- we just see the good news at the end.

Second, you have to remind yourself that one person’s promotion or new house does not mean that opportunities no longer exist for you. This one person did not take all of the jobs and houses in the world!

It may not feel like it at the moment, but remember that there are infinite opportunities out there. So instead of clinging to the idea that so-and-so took the last job out there, assure yourself that there is a promotion or house or grad school out there, waiting for you too. 

Focus on what you can control

When it comes to goal-setting, there are no guarantees and there is no predetermined timeline. 

Just because you set a goal on New Year’s Day, doesn’t mean it will arrive by the end of the year. There are so many other factors beyond our control: we don’t know what direction our company will move in or how the professors will grade our papers or what the admissions panel will be looking for. 

All we can control is our own actions.

So instead of wondering when success will happen for you or dwelling on the outcome, focus on the process. By doing so, you’ll put yourself in the ultimate position to succeed. 

This means reframing your goals to be process-oriented. Instead of saying, “I will get a promotion by the end of the year,” revise your goal to be, “In a year, I will meet with a career coach, update my LinkedIn, and add new skills by the end of the year. I will be a strong candidate for my dream job.”

You can also create quarterly goals so that you can gain more wins in a shorter time frame and then use the momentum from those wins to keep going. Focus on the success you achieve every day, rather than chalking every day you don't accomplish "that one huge thing" as a failure.

We can drive ourselves nuts trying to figure out when success will ever happen for us. And if you look back on your life, you'll probably notice how much success has already happened. Have you accomplished the things you wished for 10 years ago? Don't discount your past efforts just because you have a new goal.

By putting your energy towards variables that you can control (for example, saving up for a dream vacation or focusing on short term goals at work) you can give yourself a mental break from the ceaseless striving, and start working towards your goals in a positive way

Create a jealousy map

In her seminal creativity handbook The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron posits that sometimes the jealousy that derives from comparing ourselves to others can serve a positive purpose and help reveal our true, innermost desires. 

That’s right. It may sound counterintuitive, but jealousy can be used to clarify your true goals.

In her book, Cameron recommends creating a jealousy map, in which you make a list of things that make you jealous. For example, maybe you always feel a pang of envy when you see a friend taking time for a creative project or an influencer with a big social media presence. 

Don’t judge yourself doing this process. Instead, try to think about what this jealousy means. What part of these (real or imagined) experiences is at the heart of your envy?

Next, write down action steps you can take to help you achieve those things. So if you’ve recently been comparing your life to a friend who runs marathons and goes hiking, ask yourself: what am I jealous of? Is it that they are in great shape, or that they spend lots of time outside? Is it that they take time for their own enjoyment, or that they get social praise for their extracurricular activities?

Once you have clarified what speaks most to you, then make a list of things that you can do to bring more of what you want into your life. Maybe it means skipping a friend hang to go for a run in the park or scheduling a weekend where you can go hiking in the woods. 

Don’t let jealousy or insecurity overtake you. Instead, use these emotions to uncover what’s really going on, and to take steps to empower yourself. 

Take pride in your baby steps

When a baby takes their first steps, we are overcome with pride and joy. A baby can stumble and fall soon after but it doesn’t undermine their progress  in fact we clap and encourage them to try again.

But when it comes to our own progress, we tend to gloss over our baby steps and fixate on how much more we need to do.

Instead of waiting to celebrate yourself when you reach success  which is an ambiguous and relative concept with no finish line  be proud of your baby steps and your achievements today. 

Go ahead and break out the camera and capture the moment if you want. Did you make a delicious dinner from scratch? Update your website? Clean out your junk drawers? Relish these wins. There is nothing minuscule about them. 

Writer and career coach Jazmine Reed-Clark refers to these mini celebrations as “soul hugs.” It’s such a great term and it truly captures how recognizing your actions can be so powerful and healing. 

By appreciating your baby steps and giving yourself soul hugs, you will start to value yourself and the extensive progress you have made, stumbles and all.

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