Why do we care so much to compare?

“The reason why we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” — Steven Furtick


Illustration by Leni Santos

I recently caught myself in a shame spiral of depressive thoughts.

You may be wondering what caused this onslaught of ferocious thoughts? Simply put, I spent one too many moments staring at someone else’s greener grass.

Picture it: I am in the middle of a photography class. It is time for the class critique. My palms begin to sweat, I get a sinking pit in my stomach, and I begin to feel nervous for the unwanted attention that was to come. The classmate before me receives an abnormal amount of positive praise for their photograph. You would think that based on the amount of praise received, their photo was recently showcased in “National Geographic” or inducted into Getty Images. It’s as if they have hit the holy-grail of photographic imagery. This is an intermediate portrait photography class for cryin’ out loud!

I come up to bat next. My photograph projects on the wall of the dark classroom. Displayed in all its vulnerability while the professor seeks feedback from the class. The silence is deafening. You can tell everyone is thinking, “well, if I don’t have anything nice to say, it’s best to say nothing at all.”

Finally, someone speaks up and says the two most cringiest words I’ve ever heard “It’s ok.” — Cue the bomb-falling whistle effect here. — I sat there — with a stoic-like expression — hiding the amount of humiliation that stewed on the inside. It’s as if my self-esteem was a balloon that popped abruptly — lying deflated on the floor.

It took two days of rumination to realize what was happening. I kept thinking about how everyone’s better than me — in everything. This nagging voice reminded me of how I felt underappreciated. Yes, the obvious reaction would be to chalk it up to art being subjective — blah, blah, blah — perspective. But easier said than done. The simple yet hard truth was that I was comparing myself to others and feeling horrible in the process. It’s amazing how confidence can be stripped away with one negative critique.

By comparing my work to the work of others, I created an unrealistic fantasy in my head of someone else’s life and accomplishments. Some may argue that I was envious with a shade of lime green jello. Maybe, maybe not. If there was jealousy at the heart of it all, maybe it’s the sense of envying how “normal and talented” everyone portrays themselves to be. I longed for that feeling of accomplishment and pride. I longed to not chastise myself for my unrealized success that has patiently been waiting on the sidelines for the right moment.

When comparison rears its ugly head and takes control of every thought and impulse, this paves the way for self-destruction. Every time you look at others in comparison, you get a loath-full reminder of how worthless you are. Everyone else appears to be smarter, more organized, happier, and is generally superior to you. In some ways — if not every way — you want to be like them. You thirst after their happiness.

We’ve all been through it in some capacity. That coworker whose lazy attempts warrants praise and a promotion from the boss. Seeing a friend’s social timeline of traveling to an exotic place you’ve never been to. Comparing our looks to those of celebrities we see in the media. Watching useless commercials that call attention to our “so-called” physical defects that are common to all of us. The list goes on and on.

For me, I’ve always had a list of things I should do and should be. I realized I started creating these standards whenever I compared my life against a social comparison.

Money + career + compliments + a ton of other “things” = the key to a good life.

Society has told us that to achieve success or happiness, status symbols or social markers define such satisfaction. Our sense of self is identified by what others think or believe is true. We’ve been comparing ourselves since a very early age as a way of making sense of the world and a way to define who we are. We continuously measure ourselves against things and people instead of determining our own versions of success. We choke on the constant feedings from a society that tells us how being the best is the only thing that matters.

The worst part is, comparing ourselves is a sure-fire way to lose self-confidence and remain unhappy. It’s a recipe for misery. All it does is place the focus on what you don’t like about yourself and your life. Even the slightest mistakes feel like massive failures and moments of success are covered by self-doubt and negativity. It makes you doubt yourself, your abilities, and your uniqueness — all while you question how you’ve lived your life up to this moment. It’s a never-ending cycle of always trying to prove your worth to everyone else except yourself.

The tendency to compare ourselves to others is as human as any other emotion and fundamental impulse. There is no real way of shutting it down completely. However, there are ways to manage and cope through it without sidelining your confidence.

1. Comparison puts focus on the wrong person.

Last I remember, we can only live one life and are in control of said life. So when we focus on other people, we lose out on valuable time that we could otherwise invest in ourselves. We stop nurturing and placing attention towards ourselves. It’s a waste — because every minute spent on comparing your path to someone else’s is a minute lost on creating your own.

When the feeling rises to compare yourself with someone, pause and remember to compare yourself to you. Ask yourself what you can do to improve the quality of your life? How can you be better than you were yesterday?

Make the decision that the only person you have to please is yourself. Decide your own definition of what a “successful life” looks like. Compete with yourself and set realistic and rewarding goals. If you are improving, that’s all that matters. When this does happen, it can be liberating — you can literally feel the chains being lifted.

2. Sometimes the first step is to accept who and where we are.

No one is perfect — we all know that — but we still seem to feel bad when we don’t reach perfection. Life up until this point may have been a bumpy ride so far. But everything that has happened has led us exactly where we are today. A little stronger, a little wiser, and a better version of ourselves. So, embrace your story and how much you’ve grown from it. Trying to be perfect is not — nor will ever be — the solution.

Embrace your quirks and your unique self because this is what makes you special. If you’re not happy with where you are today, remember that this is just a snapshot in time. The story is not over, there’s still time to make a change.

But first and foremost, acceptance is key. Instead of badgering yourself for flaws, quirks, and imperfections, embrace and accept them entirely. It doesn’t mean we like how things are or should settle for the areas that bring us discontent, or more importantly, that we won’t work on improving ourselves. It just means that you have a realistic baseline to grow from. Nobody in this world is free from flaws, dents, and scratches, but it’s the spirit of acceptance that sets the tone for our lives and allows for true freedom and peace to follow.

3. Apples to oranges. It’s not a fair and just comparison.

We know that social comparisons are human characteristics that we have been unable to shake. It began in our primitive days as a human species — for pure survival methods. To answer the questions of — “Is this threatening?” and “can it kill me?”

This stayed with us and made its way into different areas of our psyche. Although there is no need for us to use comparison as a method of survival, we do it anyways. Yet it doesn’t serve us anymore.

Most times, we compare our worst moments with some else’s highlight reel. The fact of the matter is that unless you’re close to someone, it’s nearly impossible to judge the reality of their life based on outward appearances. All we see is the finished product and not the time, effort, and sacrifice spent preparing for such achievements or a particular landmark moment in that person’s life. And through the act of comparing, we end up resenting others without really having a genuine concept of the big picture.

Sometimes, we look at others who are less fortunate than ourselves to feel better about our lives. We criticize others or take someone else down for selfish reasons. It’s our ego’s way of protecting and boosting our self-esteem by pitying others or drawing comparisons to make ourselves feel less insecure. This forms enemies and unneeded contention, that ends up hurting others and ourselves in the process. Even when we do find we are better in areas than another, it becomes short-lived gratification that easily slips away in the next moment.

Point blank, comparing ourselves to others, doesn’t make any sense. Because in order for it to be a fair comparison two or more people need to have the same starting point, set goals, opportunities, and invested time. So unless you’re a twin — this is highly unlikely.

Finally, it is one thing to assume someone’s happy with this great life, but it’s another thing to assume that you could or would be happy if you were put into their shoes.

Remember that your talents, successes, and contributions are special to you and represent the framework for the purpose you have in this world. They never can be compared to anyone else.

4. Occasionally look up, but only for inspiration.

It’s been said, other people are the mirrors to ourselves and vice versa. Sometimes these mirrors inspire and motivate us, and other times we are left with a feeling of want or the feeling we are not good enough.

There are few times when comparing ourselves to others actually provides benefit. If it inspires us, it can open the door to greater possibilities. This positive way of looking at comparison shows us what is possible.

Ask yourself: Who do you admire? Who inspires you to live better? What particular comparisons are actually considered healthy for you?

When we get inspired by someone else and learn from others — this is when we are practicing true wisdom. It can be the inspiration for what you can be, do, and have in life.

5. If it doesn’t serve you — get rid of it.

Start noticing situations that arise, which cause you to play the comparison game. Is there someone in your life that constantly brags or inquires about your life in an attempt to make you feel inferior? What other circumstances are you faced with that are traps of comparison to fall into?

Social media can definitely be a trigger for inadequacy. Every time we log in, we are bombarded with #blessed individuals who play out every detail of their life on their timeline. They carefully curate the romanticized social media versions of themselves. So it’s important to take stock of this and bring awareness towards how it makes you feel. If it makes you feel negative about yourself, take the time to curate the content you want to see to something that uplifts and inspires you.

6. Be appreciative of what you have. (as hard as it may be)

If you’re reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you have a home, with running water, with access to information and technology. You’re alive and kicking, and you’ve made it this far. That’s a start. Unfortunately, many people overlook the concept of gratitude, because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the negative circumstances in life. But it’s essential to ask yourself what is “good” right now? Followed by — is there more “good” here than “bad”?

You might find yourself answering with — “well, my relationship sucks right now, and it’s really tough not to feel depressed about it. But my family has been very supportive. I also have a steady income coming in, and I never go without food. My bills are paid, one way or another, and my car is working for the time being.”

When you put it down on paper, two aspects become evident:

  1. It all comes across so simple when you think about it. But aren’t the most important things in life — our families, our connections, sustenance, and survival?
  2. There actually may be more “good” happening in life than “bad.”

When you practice gratitude, it’s difficult to be hard on yourself, and it becomes easier to see what’s working from a big picture perspective. It’s important to give credit where credit is due. Additionally, when you tally the good in life, you begin to set your own personal values of what is truly important and what success actually looks like based on these values.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to underestimate anyone’s problems. I am only here to state what has worked for others and what works for me. Some of the most successful people in the world live by the school of thought that gratitude is an essential part of happiness. These individuals believe that the pathway to success is through a continual thought-loop of being grateful rather than focusing on what lacks. When we focus on negativity, we see more of it; therefore, we are drawn to it. It’s like a thick cloud that seems impossible to get through and consumes all our energy in the process.

But with gratitude and appreciation for life, yourself and the others around you, you’ll realize that your focus begins to change — towards a more positive point of view. One that isn’t stuck in chaos, doom, and gloom. It takes time. It takes habitual practice. Write down — or say out loud — 3 things you’re grateful for. Do it often, and you’ll see life-changing benefits.

We are all on life’s uncertain and unpredictable journey. How that journey plays out is unique to the individual. Whether its to create, learn, be something — find something or someone — it has nothing to do with what another person has or doesn’t have. The only thing that matters is what we want and how to use the journey to reach our dreams.

Life’s not a competition. Even when we compare our strength to the strength of others, there will always be those who are better and those who are worse. Where we are on the scale has nothing to do with the journey.

All we can do is be kind, empathetic, and continue to send positive vibes to ourselves and others.

From time to time, I still face that green-eyed monster who likes to delusionally compare my situation with others. Like I said before — we will never fully get rid of this because it’s hard-wired within our DNA. But I do my best to manage it because I know it starts and stops with me.

So from one student of life to another — here’s my wish to you: focus on you and your path and let go of the comparing mind. We are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.

We got this.