This article first appeared on Happify
When was the last time you compared yourself to others? Maybe you measured your career path against that of an ex-colleague who became a VP at a big company while you’re still stuck doing the same boring job. Perhaps you judged your parenting skills next to your sister who’s raising three wonderful kids and has a successful career while you’re running around with your hair on fire with your firstborn. Or maybe you compared your appearance to a high-school classmate on Facebook—he looks like he’s been running marathons, while you’re still struggling to lose the 20 pounds you put on 10 years ago.
Comparison rarely makes us feel happy about ourselves. We tend to hone in on what’s great about the other person and terrible about us, a natural negativity bias that poet Anne Lamott cautions us against with her wonderful advice: “Try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”
Take a moment to think back to the last time you compared yourself to someone. How did you feel? In my work as a women’s leadership coach, I’ve found that when we compare our lives, careers, or successes against those of others, we tend to react in one of these three ways:
Reaction #1: Justify or Blame
This reaction is about avoiding the emotional discomfort of not pursuing your goals or living according to the values you feel strongly about, while watching another person living their truth. You may tell yourself: “It’s not the right time,” or “I actually love the job I have.” Or you may blame others for your inability to be where you want to be. “My boss has it in for me,” or “I don’t have the time she does, I have to do the work of two people.”
While it may be true that your path is strewn with challenges, justifying exonerates you of the responsibility to take action, and blaming can make you cynical and negative. You may even concentrate on garnering sympathy, unconsciously seeking the approval of others for your inaction. At some stage, though, you’ll likely regret the path not taken.
Reaction #2: Beat Down and Shut Down
Some of us can feel really small when we compare ourselves to others. This is common when feelings of unworthiness or incompetence are right below the surface. You’ll know this is you if your inner critic gets loud and puts you down. “It’s not like you’re as intelligent/beautiful/smart as them.” It’ll also pick up on anything it can find to convince you of your inadequacies: “Well, you did fail the math test in the second grade.” You may resort to numbing your pain with food, shopping, alcohol, busyness, social media, or binge-watching your favorite shows, and hope someone throws you a lifeline in the form of a glimmer of praise or success. Or you may engage in the next reaction to reinstate your fragile sense of self-worth.
Reaction #3: Prove and Promote
This reaction is about hiding your flaws and proving yourself worthy of appreciation or acceptance. You may try to outperform the other person in order to demonstrate that you’re better than them, setting yourself up for burnout, failure, or unhappiness because of unreasonable or unfulfilling goals. Or you may engage in self-promotion, either by trumpeting every iota of success you’ve had, or by putting the other person down through insults or gossip, what Brené Brown calls “common enemy intimacy.” For example, you may criticize their parenting if you can’t deal with their success at work. The result: A temporary “feel-good” that has to be constantly fed lest the shame that initiated the criticism-response return.
If you recognized yourself in one or more of these reactions, it’s because weighing yourself against others gives rise to negativity when you’re not pursuing a personally defined vision of success. The inner critic begins to run your life, either by beating down on you for your perceived inadequacies; or, by forcing you toward behaviors that are more about self-protection and less about your values or goals.
What you need is self-compassion. When you accept your reality with kindness and understanding, you’re able to expand your perspectives and see a much fuller picture. You may realize that you’ve achieved more than you thought, or that the other person’s success isn’t aligned with who you are or what you want in life. You may realize that the reason you’re falling short of your ideals is because you’ve taken on too much or let your priorities fall off the radar.
Self-compassion also becomes the fuel for pro-social, courageous, and responsible action. By connecting to your values, you’ll find the courage to finally take those small steps toward your ideal life. And if the person you’re comparing yourself to is on a similar path of personal or professional growth, you may even choose to approach them for their insights and advice rather than begrudge them for what they’ve achieved. Because there’s nothing like having allies and role models along for the journey to our best possible lives.