“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I grew up in an environment of perpetual creativity and inventiveness. My father Dennis built and flew experimental aircraft as a hobby. During my entire childhood, there was an airplane fuselage in the garage instead of a car. My mother Deloria was a self-taught master artisan who could quickly acquire any skills that it took to work with fabric and weaving. She could sew any garment she desired, and was able to weave intricate wall hangings just by looking at a black and white photos in magazines. My older sister Diane blossomed into a consummate fine artist who drew portraits with uncanny likeness, painted murals, and studied art and architecture. In addition, she loved good food and had a genius for cooking and baking, which converged in her creating remarkable art pieces out of cake that were incredibly delicious to boot. Yes. This was the household in which I grew up.
While there were countless positives to being surrounded by people who were compelled to create, there was also a downside to it. I incessantly compared myself to my parents and older sister and always found myself lacking.
It wasn’t a fair comparison, but tell that to a sensitive kid who wanted to fit in to her family by being creative as well. From my early years throughout my teens, I convinced myself that I would never understand how to build an airplane or at least be as proficient with tools as my father, the aeronautical engineer. Even though my sister was six years older than I was, I lamented that I would never be as good a visual artist as she was. And I marveled at my mother’s seemingly magical ability to make and tailor clothes and was certain that I would never attain her level of mastery.
This habit of comparing myself to others grew over the years, continuing to subtly and effectively undermine my sense of self. I had almost reached an uneasy truce with my comparison habit when social media happened.
As an early adopter of Twitter, I loved staying connected to people I met at tech conferences. However, as I began to realize my aspirations of being an author and a speaker, Twitter became a dreaded hall of mirrors where I only saw distorted reflections of my lack of achievement in other people’s success. Every person announcing a publishing deal caused me to drown under waves of envy over the imagined size of her or his book advance as I struggled to pay my mortgage. Every announcement I read of someone speaking at a conference led to thoughts of, “I wish I were speaking at that conference – I must not be good enough to be invited.” Twitter was fertile ground for my Inner Critic to run rampant.
One day in 2011, my comparisons to people who I didn’t even know rose to a fever pitch. I saw a series of tweets that sparked a wave of self-loathing so profound that I spent the day sobbing and despondent, as I chastised myself for being a failure. I had fallen into the deep pit of Comparison Syndrome, and to return to anything close to being productive took a day or two of painstakingly clawing my way out.
Comparison Syndrome Takes Deficiency Anxiety to Eleven
Do any of these scenarios ring true?
- You frequently feel like a failure when viewing the success of others.
- You feel dispirited and paralyzed in moving forward with your own work because it will never measure up to what others have done.
- You discount your ideas because you fear that they aren’t as good as those of your colleagues or industry peers.
Are you making yourself miserable by thinking thoughts like these?
- “I’m surrounded by people who are so good at what they do, how can I possibly measure up?”
- “Compared to my partner, my musical ability is childish – and music is no longer fun.”
- “Why haven’t I accomplished more by now? My peers are so much more successful than I am.”
Many people use the terms envy and jealousy interchangeably, but they are two distinct emotions. Jealousy is the fear of losing someone to a perceived rival: a threat to an important relationship and the parts of the self that are served by that relationship. Jealousy is always about the relationship between three people. Envy is wanting what another has because of a perceived shortcoming on your part. Envy is always based on a social comparison to another.1
Envy is a reaction to the feeling of lacking something. Envy always reflects something we feel about ourselves, about how we are somehow deficient in qualities, possessions, or success.2 It’s based on a scarcity mentality: the idea that there is only so much to go around, and another person got something that should rightfully be yours.3
A syndrome is a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms. I call it Comparison Syndrome because a perceived deficiency of some sort – in talent, accomplishments, success, skills, etc. – is what initially sparks it. While at the beginning you may merely feel inadequate, the onset of the syndrome will bring additional symptoms. Lack of self-trust and feelings of low self-worth will fuel increased thoughts of not-enoughness and blindness to your unique brilliance. If left unchecked, Deficiency Anxieties can escalate to full-blown Comparison Syndrome: a form of the Inner Critic in which we experience despair from envy and define ourselves as failures in light of another’s success.
The irony is that when we focus so much on what we lack, we can’t see what we have in abundance that the other person doesn’t have. And in doing so, we block what is our birthright: our creative expression. Envy shackles our creativity, keeps us trapped in place, and prevents forward movement. The Inner Critic in the form of Comparison Syndrome caused by envy blocks us from utilizing our gifts, seeing our path clearly, and reveling in our creative power.
In order to keep a grip on reality and not fall into the abyss of Comparison Syndrome, we’ll quell the compulsion to compare before it happens: we will free the mental bandwidth to turn our focus inward so we can start to see ourselves clearly.
Break the Compulsion to Compare
“Why compare yourself with others? No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you than you.”
At some point in time, many of us succumb to moments of feeling that we are lacking and comparing ourselves unfavorably to others. As social animals, much of our self-definition comes from comparison with others. This is how our personalities develop. We learn this behavior as children, and we grow up being compared to siblings, peers, and kids in the media. Because of this, the belief that somehow, someway, we aren’t good enough becomes deeply ingrained. The problem is that whenever we deem ourselves to be “less than,” our self-esteem suffers. This creates a negative feedback loop where negative thoughts produce strong emotions that result in self-defeating behaviors that beget more negative thoughts.
Couple this cycle with the messages we get from society that only “gifted” people are creative, and it’s no wonder that many of us will fall down the rabbit hole of Comparison Syndrome like I did on that fated day while reading tweets. Comparing ourselves to others is worse than a zero-sum game, it’s a negative-sum game. No one wins, our self-esteem deteriorates, and our creative spark dies out.
With effort, we can break the compulsion to compare and stop the decline into Comparison Syndrome by turning the focus of comparison inward to ourselves and appreciating who we’ve become. But first, we need to remove some of the instances that trigger our comparisons in the first place.
Arrest: Stop the Triggers
“Right discipline consists, not in external compulsion, but in the habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities.”
After my Twitter post meltdown, I knew had to make a change. While bolstering my sense of self was clearly a priority, I also knew that my ingrained comparison habit was too strong to resist and that I needed to instill discipline. I decided then and there to establish boundaries with social media.
First, to maintain my sanity, I took this on as my mantra: “I will not compare myself to strangers on the Internet or acquaintances on Facebook.”
If you find yourself sliding down the slippery slope of social media comparison, you can do the same: repeat this mantra to yourself to help put on the brakes.
Second, in order to reduce my triggers, I stopped reading the tweets of the people I followed. However, I continued to be active on Twitter through sharing information, responding to mentions, crowdsourcing, and direct messaging people. It worked! The only time I’d start to slip into darkness were the rare instances when I would break my rules and look at my Twitstream.
But we can do even more than calm ourselves with helpful mantras. Just like my example of modifying my use of Twitter, and more recently, of separating myself from Facebook, you can get some distance from the media that activates your comparison reflex and start creating the space for other habits that are more supportive to your being to take its place.
Creative Dose: Trigger-free and Happy
Purpose: To stop comparison triggers in their tracks
Mindfulness is a wonderful tool, but sometimes you have to get hardcore and do as much as you can to eliminate distractions so that you can first hear your own thoughts in order to know which ones you need to focus on.
Here are four steps to becoming trigger-free and happier.
Step 1: Make a List
Pay attention when you get the most triggered and hooked. Is it on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat? Is it YouTube, TV shows, or magazines?
Make list of your top triggers.
My primary trigger is:______________________________________ My second trigger is:______________________________________ My third trigger is:______________________________________
Now that you have your list, you need to get an idea just how often you’re getting triggered.
Step 2: Monitor
It’s easy to think that we should track our activity on the computer, but these days, it’s no longer our computer use that is the culprit: most of us access social media and news from our phones. Fortunately, there are apps that will track the usage for both.
Seeing just how much you consume media from either or both will show you how much of an accomplice the use of devices is to your comparison syndrome, and how much you need to modify your behavior accordingly.
For tracking both computer use and tablet use, this app works great:
- RescueTime.com tracks app usage and sends a productivity report at the end of the week via email.
For your phone, there are many for either platform.4 Although I recommend fully researching what is available and will work for you best, here are a few recommendations:
- For both platforms: Offtime, Breakfree, Checky
- For Android only: Flipd, AppDetox, QualityTime, Stay On Task
- For iOS only: Moment
Install your app of choice, and see what you find. How much time are you spending on sites or apps that compel you to compare?
Step 3: Just Say No
Now that you know what your triggers are and how much you’re exposing yourself to them, it’s time to say No.
Put yourself on a partial social media and/or media detox for a specified period of time; consider even going for a full media detox.5 I recommend starting with one month.
To help you to fully commit, I recommend writing this down and posting it where you can see it.
I, ___________________, commit to avoiding my comparison triggers of ___________________, ___________________, and ___________________ for the period of ___________________, starting on ___________________ and ending on ___________________ .
To help you out, I’ve created a social media detox commitment sheet for you.
Step 4: Block
When I decided to reduce my use of Twitter and Facebook to break my comparison habit, initially I tried to rely solely on self-discipline, which was only moderately successful. Then I realized that I could use the power of technology to help. Don’t think you have to rely upon sheer willpower to block, or at least limit, your exposure to known triggers. If your primary access to the items that cause you to compare yourself to others is via computers and other digitalia, use these devices to help maintain your mental equilibrium.
Here are some apps and browser extensions that you can use during your media detox to help keep yourself sane and stay away from sites that could throw you into a comparison tailspin.
These apps are installed onto your computer:
- RescueTime.com works on both computer and mobile devices, and does a lot more than just prevent you from going to sites that will ruin your concentration, it will also track your apps usage and give you a productivity report at the end of the week.
- Focus and SelfControl (Mac-only)
To go right to the source and prevent you from visiting sites through your browser, there are browser extensions.
Not only can you put in the list of the URLs that are your points of weakness, but you can also usually set the times of the day you need the self-control the most.
- Google Chrome: StayFocusd, Strict Workflow, and Website Blocker
- Firefox: Idderall and Leechblock
- Safari: WasteNoTime and MindfulBrowsing
- Edge (or Explorer): Unfortunately, there are currently no website blocking extensions for these browsers.
I currently use a browser extension to block me from using Facebook between 9:00am – 6:00pm. It’s been a boon for my sanity: I compare tons less. A bonus is that it’s been terrific for my productivity as well.
Which tool will you use for your media detox time? Explore them all and then settle upon the one(s) that will work the best for you. Install it and put it to work.
Despite the tool, you will still need to exercise discipline. Resist the urge to browse Instagram or Facebook while waiting for your morning train. You can do it!
Step 5: Relax
Instead of panicking from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), take comfort from this thought: what you don’t know won’t affect you. Start embracing JOMO (Joy of Missing Out), and the process of rebuilding and maintaining your sanity.
What will you do instead of consuming the media that compels you to compare? Here are some ideas:
- Read a book
- Go for a walk
- Have dinner with a friend
- Go watch a movie
- Learn how to play the harmonica
- Take an improv class
Really, you could do anything. And depending on how much of your time and attention you’ve devoted to media, you could be recapturing a lot of lost moments, minutes, hours, and days.
Step 6: Reconnect
Use your recovered time and attention to focus on your life and reconnect with your true value-driven goals, higher aspirations, and activities that you’ve always wanted to do.
Parrish, “Mental Model: Bias from Envy and Jealousy.” ↩