The Comparison Trap

All people on earth were created with worth and value. This is what I believe. Everyone has a purpose and everyone has something to contribute. Unfortunately, society often celebrates a different rubric for worth: a set of physical attributes, intellectual capabilities and noteworthy accomplishments which are required for “successful” living. As a result, most of us spend our lives comparing ourselves to others, trying to discern if we are “up to snuff.”

Comparing ourselves to others is a slippery slope. More often than not it feeds self-doubt, inhibits productivity, and saps joy from our lives. Here are two the mistakes we often make:

Mistake #1: Comparing our Weaknesses to Others’ Strengths

Let’s face it, no one is perfect. We all have things we do well, and other areas where we struggle. Although many agree that this is reality, we nevertheless are intolerant of our own perceived weaknesses. Typically, we believe we should be good at everything, and hyper-focus on areas where we feel we fall short. To make matters worse, we tend to idolize those who have these talents or characteristics and deem ourselves failures.

For example…

a young woman who struggles with weight compulsively compares herself to people who are naturally slender, 

a person for whom reading is difficult compares himself to friends who read the Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day,

one who fears public speaking envies friends who are comfortable before large groups,

an un-athletic teen feels inferior to her peer who is going to college on a lacrosse scholarship.

The problem with this approach is that we undervalue our own gifts and give undue attention to areas we perceive as weaknesses. Frankly, if we could read the thoughts of others, we would likely find that they are comparing themselves to us in some area and feeling inadequate. A better approach is to focus on identifying and developing our own strengths, and then finding a way “row downstream” by putting them to use in our careers and personal lives.

Mistake #2: Comparing Our Private to Others’ Public

Whenever we step into a public setting, we try and put our best foot forward. We wear nice clothes, speak intentionally, stand up tall, etc. As most family members would attest, who we are in public often does not completely reflect who we are in private. In places where we feel comfortable (e.g. at home), we are probably far less impressive.

The problem is that many of us compare our inner selves – who we are when no one is looking – to the polished and perfected personas we see in public.

She never loses her temper,” we notice, of a mother at the park.

He’s got it all together. He knows everyone’s name and always says the right thing.”

She has perfect skin/hair/legs…” we think as we look at an image in a magazine.

“They have a wonderful, happy family who takes amazing vacations” we conclude after seeing a post on Facebook.

But pull back the curtain on any of our most admired contacts and we would see that they all have flaws and struggles. Maybe the Mom actually falls apart at home and cries in despair. Or maybe the friendly businessman retreats into a shell at home playing video games. We’ve all seen the magic of Photoshop to alter and perfect images that end up in print. And who knows the story behind online posts? I’ve yet to see a family post about the fight Mom and Dad had in the hotel room!

The truth is, we never know what goes on behind closed doors, so we shouldn’t compare our intimate, personal selves to the practiced and perhaps artificial facades we encounter in a public setting.

*     *     *     *     *

There will always be people whose accomplishments, skills, appearance, work ethic, etc. we respect and admire. Coaching, professional assistance and mentoring relationships can all be very helpful as we seek to grow and improve our lives. But be careful. Falling into these comparison traps can lead to an inaccurately poor sense of self, killing motivation and draining productivity. Remember, no one is perfect … and no one needs to be.

Do you struggle with comparing yourself to others?

32 thoughts on “The Comparison Trap”

  1. I think you are right that we are all capable of this from time to time, but I think we do have to remind ourselves that we are different people and can’t judge ourselves against others indeed.

    1. That’s it, Janine! It’s all about embracing our unique “me.” Think how boring the world would be if we were all the same anyway…

    1. Sort of something we all do, but often without realizing the flaw in the way we evaluate ourselves. Great progress to find yourself doing less comparing, Amber. That is really all I hope for with this post. We all have so much to offer!

  2. Oh gosh Seana I needed to read this this morning! I definitely struggle with comparing myself to others, especially at the moment with trying to build up a business, it seems everyone is so much more clued up, out there and successful!

    1. Oh Corlie I know exactly what you mean. When you are starting you, you feel like everyone around you know what they are talking about and you are feeling like a fish underwater. But that is really more about time in the business than anything else… not about true expertise or knowledge. Hang in there long enough and we too will be the experts!

  3. A very wise post – never thought about it that way. I make those snap judgements that other people’s lives are easier etc. on Facebook all the time and that’s pretty absurd. Thanks for visiting my blog today for SITS day – I’m excited to find yours.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Amy. Facebook can be a surprising source of depression and low self-worth, and yet when we stand back and think about it, we realize it isn’t reality at all. My hope with this post is that people will berate themselves less and embrace who they are:) Hope you had a wonderful SITS day!

  4. It’s timely because I just went to a blogging conference!
    And yes, I struggle a bit. How can you not? I think that it’s easy to see people who have made it BIG and think I’m not good enough. However, we all have our strengths and worths and there will be things I can and will be big at, even if they’re on a smaller scale.

    1. Believe me, Tamara… a lot of people are looking at YOU and thinking “Wow, I wish I could take photographs like that and have beautiful children like she has and write with such effortless whimsy and emotion…” I sometimes think about your “big success,” not sure how that gets defined or if I even want it. The one thing I do know is that we are all good enough!

  5. I really worry about this generation and the comparison thing. They spend so much time on social media, where everyone is putting their “perfect” forward. Then they compare their lives to the perfect world they see on the internet. It’s very hard to live up to! Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

    1. That’s exactly it, Lana. Nobody’s life looks as good in the back room as it does on FB/Twitter/Instagram, because we just don’t put the garbage out there for public viewing. And even though we know this intellectually, we still let it get into our self-perception. Not sure how this is all going to play out… hoping to send the message that we are all good enough!

  6. I loved reading this. It’s perfectly-written! I think I’m a naturally optimistic person, I’ve grown to be and I usually use it to my advantage. Whenever I see my friends who are on vacation outside the country doing the things I badly wanted to do but can’t, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that I’m not able to do what they do because I’m here taking care of a toddler and can’t leave my work. It’s a selfish thought but then I’ve learned to dismiss the idea away even before it consumes me. Thankfully.

    1. I remember a couple of summers ago when I didn’t have a vacation. Every time I saw a family’s pictures of vacation, I felt badly, like I was missing out. But in reality, I was having a nice summer and enjoying the setting where I live. It was sort of a wake-up call to me to guard my thoughts. Thanks for the comment, Rea!

  7. Great post Seana. It’s very rare that anyone posts their failures on Facebook, unless it’s as a cautionary tale. And the biggest laugh to me is when someone tells me I seem so energetic early in the morning. What an act that is!

    1. You’re making me laugh now, Matt:) The same could be said of me late at night… if you see an 11:00pm post from me, it has been scheduled!

  8. You are spot on with all of these! I can be guilty of comparing myself to other moms when I have no idea what their lives at home are really like. I have to remind myself what a waste of time that is!

    1. That’s just it, Karen! A waste of time and based on illusions. Something is wrong when we don’t want our friends to come over because our homes aren’t “perfect”… I love being invited into a home where real life is in full swing – makes me feel great!

    1. Thanks, Katy. It is such a “no-win” trap, and yet one so many of us fall into. It is basically comparing reality to fantasy, and that is a sure path to a bad day!

    1. Sometimes I just need to verbally remind myself, “What I see is not the complete picture”… it is sort of the year-round Christmas card:)

  9. Great article Seana, I think we all do some of these things at times, it’s human nature. I have however taught myself a good lesson because of the advice I give my son. He is always coming home from school saying how great other people are at things, until I turn it around and show him the great things he can do that they can’t. I tell him it’s not a competition, we can’t all be good at everything, but we can learn from how the people we envy accomplish their tasks. Sometimes the answers will surprise you!

    1. I agree that it is human nature, Jill. So wonderful for you son to have your voice in his ear, reminding him of his own wonderful strengths. I am a believer in lifelong learning, and am always happy to acquire a new skill. But also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be content with the fact that I have limitations. Watching others excel in their areas of giftedness can be a joy!

  10. what a great post, it’s so easy to compre yourself to others. It’s a beautiful feeling when you can say you are happy with who you are and what you have.

    1. It is a beautiful feeling, Karen. Wish we could spend more time with that feeling and less time feeling inadequate!!

    1. I’m so glad you stopped by, Preslaysa (and what a pretty name!) Comparing ourselves to others is a struggle we all face, me included. It’s a battle worth fighting, though, since it usually leaves us feeling low. Have a great day!

    1. Good for you, Susie! It can be so hard to let go of comparing and celebrate who we are as individuals. It is our diversity that makes the world an interesting place to live!

  11. This message was reinforced in a recent phone conversation I had with a colleague, when I commented how well her business was doing and she reminded me that the perception we make on social media isn’t always totally accurate.

    1. Such a good point, Janet. Frequently when business owners are starting out, they think that everyone around them is raking in the money and they aren’t… and it just isn’t true:)

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