Avoiding the comparison trap

Like it or hate it, we just can’t help comparing ourselves to others. Whether it be our looks, intelligence, success, or wealth, whatever it is, we keep looking for it sidewise. Why do we do this? The easy answer is, that in order to ascertain our value or worth, we want to see where we sit in the proverbial pecking order.


In 1954, Leon Festinger published his Social Comparison Theory. He outlined that people compare themselves in two ways: upward and downward. Some of us try to improve ourselves by aspiring to those who already have the qualities we desire, some might say this is a positive thing. If, by looking at the success of others, you feel inspired to double your efforts and strive for similar things: that pay rise, weight loss, or a new house, then using another person’s life as healthy competition can only be a good thing, right?
In the quest to measure up, some of us choose to compare ourselves downwards, to those who have less than us, to bolster our self-confidence. ‘Well, at least I’m more successful/attractive, than they are,’ we may think to ourselves. This type of thinking is less damaging and can be a reassuring comfort blanket for your self-esteem and is more aligned to the practice of ‘gratitude’ seeking. But for those searching for a catalyst for success, it can feel insufficient.
With every success story comes a darker reality. When you look ‘up’ to others, you run the risk of looking down on yourself. There are two ways to strive for self-improvement and change. One is through, nurture, positivity and encouragement and the other, more worryingly, is through, self-criticism, dissatisfaction and shame. This type of negative comparison can be, at best, counterproductive and, at worst, very damaging to a person’s self-esteem.

Unfair comparisons

When we reflect on others’ achievements, we often set ourselves up for failure. We fixate on the areas we feel are lacking and then compare them to another person’s best attributes. Talk about mental torment! If you spend time flicking through the covers of Men/Women’s Health with a view to losing weight, it’s likely to lead you to self-loathing rather than inspiration. If you fancy giving your living room a lick of paint, it probably isn’t the wisest move to delve into Ideal Home magazine, packed with the luxurious homes of the rich and famous.

We all have the desire and potential for growth, but we are not all going to become Mo Farah by taking up some light jogging, so it’s best that we don’t all try to. This type of comparison is self-destructive and will leave you in a much worse situation than the one in which you are already.

We also need to consider where we look for our comparisons. Whether we are chatting to our colleagues in the canteen or scrolling through social media, what we are seeing, and hearing is likely to be an amplification of that person’s reality. You know it yourself; you are much more likely to share the best bits of your life with others and minimise or ignore the negatives. Nobody likes to moan now, do they? So, next time you listen to Joe Bloggs wax lyrical about his amazing weekend mini-break, bear in mind you may be listening to the trailer of an entirely ordinary movie.

Finding happiness

Comparison will never lead you to happiness. Have you ever wondered why, when you do finally achieve that goal, it doesn’t always feel as good as you hoped it would? It’s because we attribute feelings to achievements.

When we look to improve ourselves, we believe it will leave us feeling more fulfilled and content. In short, we think that people with more than we have are happier than we are. So, therefore, it seems rational that if we get what they have, we will be happier also.

But happiness can’t be tied to tangible things because it is a state that is found from within. In fact, we would do better to learn to accept the person we are now, valuing our current strengths and qualities instead of rejecting our current self in pursuit of someone more worthy of acceptance.

The quicker we realise that life isn’t a level playing field and begin to look at ourselves as unique and worthy individuals, the better. If we become our own benchmark, we will then make sustainable and healthy progress and feel proud of the whole process. If we begin to get in touch with our own needs, wants and values, our motivation will be an intrinsic one, where each step forward, no matter how small, can be meaningful.

When we stay in our own lane, we will never fall behind, never fail to live up to expectations and, as a result, will be less likely to be disheartened or give up. Our successes can be cherished and built upon and, on the days that we inevitably make less progress, we will stop burdening ourselves with shame.

Helpful tips

If you are ready to start encouraging yourself instead of criticising yourself, here are a few tips to help avoid the comparison trap:

  1. Compare yourself only to who you were yesterday.
  2. Limit your use of social media, particularly when you are feeling low.
  3. Focus on your own values, as it is by following them that you will find true contentment.
  4. Take office talk with a pinch of salt, it is merely the trailer for what is often an average movie.
  5. Focus on what you would like to be rather than who you should be
  6. Recognise every forward step and celebrate it, no matter how small.
  7. Progress isn’t linear, so accept that sometimes we need to take a few steps backwards along the way.

Counselling is the perfect place to start this process. If you would like someone by your side to champion you, then get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10
Written by Catherine Beach, Counselling, Dip Couns, MBACP
Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10

Catherine is a person centred counsellor, teacher and occasional poet from Kent. She is on a mission to rid the world of shoulds and musts, working with her clients to discover their passions, wants and needs. Catherine is passionate in the belief that we are all good enough but live in a world that often lies to us.

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