Brendon Towle Coaching

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The Comparison Trap

One of the nuggets of recovery wisdom that gets shared a lot is “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” The first few times (hell, probably the first few years) I heard that, I was like “What are you talking about? What does that even mean?” As I’ve kept on in recovery, it’s become one of the more powerful pieces of maintaining my self-confidence and avoiding those feelings of not good enough. But, there’s actually a shorter version that I think is even more powerful; I’ll share it after I talk about what the original means.

First, an example:

“Look at that picture they just shared. They’re in this beautiful place, having a beautiful meal, and everyone’s smiling and happy. Why can’t I be that happy? Why can’t my life be like that?”

The key point here is that almost everyone, most of the time and with most people, is presenting to others in the way that they want to be perceived. I like to think of it as putting on a show. It’s not that it’s dishonest, necessarily (although it can be); it’s more that many people carefully curate what parts of their life, their personality, and their feelings they put on display for everyone to see.

This is especially true on most social media, btw. The pictures you see on Instagram aren’t a random or representative selection of the ones the photographer takes; they’re the best ones, or the most interesting ones, or the most inspiring ones. The thoughts people post on LinkedIn aren’t a random or representative selection of the poster’s thoughts; they’re the ones that she judged as being most worthy of sharing with the world.1

But, I know the entirety of my life. I know all the thoughts that go through my head; the inspirational ones and the banal ones, the ones I’d be happy to share with the world and the ones that I wish I didn’t have. I know all the feelings I have, and all the pictures I take, etc. So, “comparing my insides to your outsides” means that I’m comparing my total knowledge of myself with the carefully curated and selected presentation that you’re giving to the world, and there’s almost no way that comparison ends up with anything other than me feeling bad because the other person is “better”. Depending on how much I indulge the comparison, it can turn into a spiral of self-recrimination.

Finally, note that the self-recrimination in the example is all based on “Why …” questions. I’ve talked elsewhere about the hazards in having those questions in our self-talk; that’s just as true here as anywhere else.

And, another example:

“Listen to that person talk. They’re so eloquent, and moving, and the audience is alternately laughing and crying. The last time I talked, people were shuffling around the room and barely listening to me. Why can’t I inspire people like that?”

Even with things that aren’t necessarily curated or selected by the person I’m comparing against, there’s often a cherry-picking effect going on from me. I don’t compare myself against every talk I hear, which means that I’m not comparing against an average performance. I’m comparing against something (or someone) that caught my eye, usually because they’re exceptional, and so I lose again. (And, there’s another “Why …” question here. 😥)

At the beginning, I promised a shorter version of the recovery nugget that I find to be more effective in maintaining self-confidence, and here it is: “Don’t compare yourself to others.” To the extent that I can keep my head out of the comparisons, or not engage when my head does go there, I’m happier and more confident.

Now, this may seem impossible, and there’s some evidence for that. In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown talks about how comparison is pervasive and often below our awareness. She quotes another researcher as saying:

“In general, however, frequent social comparisons are not associated with life satisfaction […] but are associated with the negative emotions of fear, anger, shame, and sadness.”

That lines up with my experience. Even if, in making one particular comparison, I manage to avoid all the traps above, I’m still getting myself in the habit of comparing myself to others. Because all the traps above are not avoidable indefinitely, getting myself (or keeping myself) in that habit is setting myself up for inevitably falling into those traps, and the spiral of self-criticism that it can start.

My head can go into comparison mode quickly, but that doesn’t mean I have to take it seriously, or to indulge the thinking. When it does, I try to remind myself that instead of comparing myself to others, I can compare myself to my past self, or to my goals, or to my aspirations.

Different people are different, and the person I’m comparing myself to is (obviously) different from me. I have my own talents, my own abilities, my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) how to acknowledge those in self-talk. When I can just stop there, the negative effects of comparison don’t affect me nearly as much.

  1. Before you ask: Yes, that applies equally to the stuff I’m putting on Instagram/LinkedIn/etc.

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