The Trap of Comparison

“Because really, that’s what comparison does: it makes life all about me, how I measure up or fall short. And all that self-absorption consumes our mental energy and prevents us from enjoying life.”

— Kay Wills Wyma, author of I’m Happy for You (Sort Of…Not Really)

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Comparison is a constant in our culture today. And, it’s easy to see why.

The pressure of being “where you should be in life” is no longer just from society or whomever you interact with on a personal level, it’s now also random people from high school, a girl you met at a networking event one time, and Instagram fitness models.

In today’s world, comparison has become so serious that a term has been created for it: Obsessive Comparison Disorder or OCD. I first heard this phrase in the Pivot Podcast episode “Adulting to Win”.  Host Jenny Blake interviews Paul Angone, the founder and author of All Groan Up, who came up with the phrase and it really got me thinking.

At first, I was a little concerned with how the word “disorder” was being used.  So, I turned to Merriam-Webster and read the following definition: disorder isa state or situation in which there is a lot of noise, […] violent behavior, etc.”

This definition really does seem to capture what our obsession with comparison has become. Our lives are filled with the noise of what other people are doing and we subject ourselves to the violent behavior of telling ourselves we aren’t good enough, despite how hard we work.

This constant comparison has the potential to become quite dangerous, too. In a Forbes article, contributor and founder of Unconventional Life, Jules Schroeder explains that constant comparison “can have damaging effects on physical and psychological well-being, with social media use being linked to depression, anxiety, and loneliness.”

That’s really serious. And, it needs to stop.

But, how?

Here are some solutions that have worked for me.

Ask yourself simple questions to discover where your comparison originates.  

  • Who? Is it a certain social media model, “picture perfect” celebrity, or friend that makes you start to compare?
  • What? Does Instagram, a specific class at the gym, or your weekly lunch with a gossipy coworker make you start to compare?  
  • When? Does this happen late at night when you’re aimlessly scrolling Facebook or when you talk to a certain friend on the phone?
  • Where? Do you you notice this happening when you’re alone, surrounded by others, or in a specific place each time?
  • How? Do your comparisons make you feel angry, inadequate, frustrated, anxious, ect.?

Once you have the answers to these questions, the next step is to…

Every time you find yourself falling into this comparison trap, use your newfound knowledge of where these feelings originate and decide how to handle each individual situation.  I suggest:

  1. Moderate. Ask yourself “how I can limit my time with whatever/whoever triggers my need to compare?” If it’s a weekly lunch with an ill willed coworker, say you have too much to do and can only get lunch once a month instead. Perhaps it’s your hour commute that you spend scrolling through Instagram. Why not set a timer to spend the first 30 minutes on the app and the rest of your time reading a book?
  2. Eliminate. While this can be hard, it can be exactly the kick you need to get yourself moving in the right direction. Whether it’s logging off of your social media accounts for a month, deleting an app from your phone, shutting off email notifications, or turning your phone on airplane mode, going cold turkey can relieve pressure.
  3. Embrace. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of walking away from a situation completely. You may have a well-meaning aunt who so kindly likes to remind you that cousin Sally is married, owns a house, has 3 kids, and is a lawyerall at age 24. Instead of doing your usual nod and smile, try saying something to your aunt like “While I love seeing Sally so happy, that doesn’t mean that’s the life I want. I appreciate you looking out for me, but don’t worry, I’ve got my life covered.” Embrace how uncomfortable this may feel at first, but be proud that you stood up for yourself.

“Should” is at the root of all comparisons. Begin to notice how often you think and say this word. Once you that, it will be easier to start eliminating thoughts such as “I should look like that” or “I should be further along in my career by now.” Sure, you can strive to look a certain way or reach certain goals, but remember you’re on your own path and you don’t know what a person’s life really looks like behind closed doors.  

This one is hard, but it’s critical if you want to make real progress. As Ryan Dumont, former OCD patient and author of The Missing Peace explains, “We’re so consumed with everything being instant gratification, we want our problem solved right away. Any obstacle you have is gonna take time, patience, hard work.” Don’t expect things to change right away. Stick with it and the results will be worth it.

No matter what causes your need to compare or what steps you take to overcome it, remember that you are where you’re meant to be. It doesn’t matter what your best friend, brother, cousin, college classmate, or high school crush is doing right now. We’re all on our own separate journeys.

Focus your time and energy on YOU and the people and things that make you happy.

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