First thing in the morning, I can feel the sunlight kissing my face. I know roughly what time it is without even checking my watch.
Everything around me is within my awareness.
I am also aware of the sensations within me, like the tenderness of my neck from sleeping slightly off my pillow.
I am completely in tune with myself and my surroundings in that moment.
However, instead of acknowledging my body’s cry for a nice stretch, or taking a moment to appreciate the sunrise that’s blessing the city outside my window or reaching over to snuggle with my husband who is sound asleep next to me, I do what most of us do in this age of technology…
I scroll through my phone, checking messages and emails and mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed.
This used to happen every morning.
I would spend some time on social media then get up and get on with my day. It was mindless, really.
By the time I’d stepped into the shower, I’d already forgotten most of what I’d seen in my feed and in my emails.
Until one morning, when, in the middle of my mindless routine, the truth of what I was doing dawned on me.
That morning, I woke up and reached for my phone, reflexively scrolling through my Instagram feed.
Suddenly, I paused, and thought, “Who is this? Why am I seeing their picture on my feed?” I realized it was a sponsored post, or an ad from a random stranger, but something made me stop and stare at that post a little longer.
I started feeling a little anxious and uncomfortable.
“Why am I feeling this way?” I wondered. In that moment, I realized that I was comparing myself to this person that I didn’t even know.
Based on the image, this stranger had seemingly accomplished a personal goal of mine that had been nagging me for some time, and just like that I felt inadequate.
Right away, the judgment started:
Why haven’t I accomplished this already?
Is there something wrong with me?
Maybe I’m not good enough…
What a horrible way to start the day! Before I had fully opened my eyes, I was already comparing myself to a stranger on the internet (and coming up short).
This affected my mood, my self-evaluation and made me question my self-worth.
I realized that I was not being mindful and intentional with my thoughts and actions. Even the tiniest habits create ripples in our world.
The seemingly insignificant habit of starting my day with negative comparison was impacting my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors throughout the day.
After that moment, I vowed to start my mornings differently. I promised myself to be more intentional with my first actions and thoughts of the day.
This new awareness stirred a difficult memory of when I first began to evaluate myself in comparison to others.
How It Starts
For me, it all started in elementary school. I had just come back to Lebanon after living in the US for a couple of years with my family, and I had to join a new school.
The major problem with this transition is that I couldn’t write or speak formal Arabic yet all of a sudden, I had to write, recite and read formal Arabic; it was a nightmare.
Anxious about how I would do, I was excited when I learned that the school’s most beloved Arabic teacher was appointed to teach my class.
The “smart” kids in the class adored this teacher and she reveled in their adoration. She loved those students, but had little love for the struggling new kid in her class without a grasp of formal Arabic.
Determined, the teacher employed a peculiar strategy to ensure that I would become proficient in Arabic:
During dictation, she would sit on my table with a wooden ruler in one hand and her guidebook in the other. She would look down at my paper and monitor what I was writing, and whenever I made a mistake, she would slap my hands with the ruler to help prevent me from making the same errors in the future.
It’s crazy to imagine anyone using these teaching methods today!
As I was the only kid in the classroom being treated this way, I started to ask myself:
What’s wrong with me?
How come she’s not so harsh to everyone else?
How are the other students so much better at this than me?
The most mortifying moment of the whole experience was when I burst out crying in front of the whole class – not because she hit me in front of everyone (she did that often), but because another one of my classmates couldn’t handle her methods. He snapped at her and yelled, “Haram, Miss!!” which sort of means, “Have Mercy, Miss,” because he wanted her to stop.
I appreciated his sympathy, but at the same time I hated it. I felt hurt and ashamed and cried from my humiliation.
Consequently, the teacher (who felt put on the spot by my 6-year-old classmate) explained to the class her logic for treating me this way.
Apparently, she had used the same strategy with another student who happened to be one of my “cool” classmate’s cousins and it worked wonders.
Thanks to this method, that formerly struggling student was now acing Arabic dictation!
I thought to myself, “Well, if this cool kid’s cousin went through this, then I am not alone. If she got better, maybe I will too…
Eventually, I improved at dictation, but I became so much worse in terms of my self-comparison.
I am not entirely blaming my teacher for that. Learning to compare myself to others was something that would have inevitably happened anyway.
This tendency is not just learned, it’s part of our evolutionary survival mechanism.
Over the years, I have compared myself to better-achieving students, better-looking people, people who are more fit, better-off and those more accomplished and “successful” (by successful, I mean they had something I thought I needed).
If I looked hard enough, I could compare myself to anyone and anything. And, like everyone, my self-comparison rose to a new level with the rise of social media.
In that early morning moment, however, I reached my epiphany and realized that I didn’t want to volunteer for suffering anymore.
I was tired of hurting myself by focusing constantly on how lacking I was or how little I had accomplished.
These incessant barbs of self-judgment were doing as much damage to me as the wooden ruler rapping across my knuckles, and I wasn’t willing to sit still anymore.
I wanted to file a restraining order against comparison. I didn’t want it anywhere near me.
But knowing the more I disliked something the worse it would become, I decided to end the suffering. I began studying and researching self-comparison, and, most importantly, I started working on myself.
Some Information on Comparison
There are 2 Types of Self-Comparisons:
Upward comparison. This is what happens when we compare ourselves to someone who we think is better than us. This type of comparison helps us improve our skills, up our game, and generally get better at something.
Downward comparison. This occurs when we compare ourselves to someone who is worse at something than us. At times, this type of comparison can help us feel better about our situation.
Why We Compare:
Social comparison is one of the most universal and common tendencies. This human inclination to look to others for information about how to feel, think and behave has given us the capacity to thrive in complex social environments.
Moreover, there’s research on how much children and teens look to others to decide how to respond to a stimulus.
Consider the example of the English actor Daniel Radcliffe, who is known for playing Harry Potter.
In one of his interviews, he shares how his parents helped shape his reactions to dealing with crazy fans and paparazzi.
He was only 12 years old when he and his parents arrived in Japan for a press tour.
They were shocked to find thousands of fans waiting for him at the airport.
After they fought their way to the car, his parents burst out laughing and joked about how ridiculous this whole experience was!
Daniel admits that he was looking and waiting for their reaction to understand how he should react to the incident. Since then, he’s been able to handle similar situations pretty well and with some humor.
Additionally, there are various studies on how social comparison is connected to cultural practices. For example, early on we learn from others what constitutes acceptable behavior and what does not.
Being the odd one out in a group is discouraged in most settings – whether it’s at school, at home or in public – so comparison helps keep us in check.
Furthermore, comparison helps us improve, change our habits and interrupt dysfunctional patterns. It compels us to reach for more. It also gives us hope: “If she can do it, so can I…”
The most fascinating thing I learned about comparison was that, according to evolutionary psychology theorists, social comparison helped our ancestors survive and thrive.
For example, Tom lights fire more efficiently than I do, so observing Tom will help me light fires more efficiently in the future.
I concluded that self-comparison can be essential and necessary for survival.
Nevertheless, this tendency can be detrimental if left unchecked. The same mechanism that helps us improve and survive can also make us feel small and lacking.
How I Dealt with Self-Comparison
After understanding the benefits of healthy comparison, I wanted to make a mindful distinction between using comparison for my positive growth and using it as a harmful tool of self-criticism.
In certain areas that require skills training, I found that it’s really important to compare myself to myself, as in my levels of improvement.
I compare my writing skills to when I first started so that I can acknowledge areas of growth and recognize where I need to keep improving.
I compare my coaching skills before my excessive training and experience with my skills today to see how far I’ve come and how much I can still grow.
Evaluating progress is essential and fundamental to growth.
Furthermore, I found It’s helpful to look up to certain people who have reached a goal I want to achieve. For example, I compare my writing to that of my favorite writers.
They inspire me to improve and work harder and they give me standards to aspire to. I also compare myself to my mentor.
After she shared with me that she had gotten a better handle on her negative self-talk, she gave me hope that it’s possible for me to have a better handle on my own.
Funnily enough, sometimes this works in reverse for me. If I can’t find someone who’s achieved a goal similar to what I hope to do, it gives me a nudge to take the initiative and do it myself.
I have to admit, I am not great at this yet, but I’m getting there.
Now Let’s Explore The Other Side of Comparison:
One time, I was at the beach with my friends and one of them brought along a gorgeous girl.
She had the kind of beauty that made you question your existence and she happened to be the center of attention that day.
I felt the sharp pains of insecurity and inferiority. “I can’t compare to this goddess – she’s even flawlessly rocking one of those hipster headbands and it makes her look super interesting.”
Sipping my drink in the pool, I encountered our mutual friend who confided in me that this girl had been battling cancer and that she was wearing the scarf to hide her hair loss from chemotherapy.
Immediately I felt like sharp knives had cut through my throat and I couldn’t speak.
I had judged this girl and simultaneously judged myself in reference to her.
I felt ashamed of how I had thought of myself and how threatened I felt based on my assumptions.
With this new insight, the girl became even more beautiful in my eyes. Her presence exuded a strength that translated into beauty.
That day I learned an important lesson about comparison and judgment.
I realized it’s absurd to assume we know what people are all about.
We know nothing of their journeys, what they go through to achieve the ‘things’ we want.
The same goes for people we think we know very well. Do we really know their entire story? Do we know what they’ve been through, what they struggle with, what they dream about?
What I Do Differently Now
When I notice I’m negatively comparing myself to someone else, I remind myself (with compassion) to admire the other person with respect to their whole story and repeat the following mantra: I am enough.
A Few Other Practices I Have Implemented:
- I question my assumptions and negative thoughts. Negative thoughts are not always bad, but it’s good to check the accuracy of our thoughts, especially if a thought is on a loop and causing a lot of pain. A simple question that helps me identify the accuracy of my thoughts is: “Is this true?”
- I do mental housekeeping and reflect on my core values. I answer these questions: “What’s important to me? What brings me happiness? How do I want to show up in the world? How am I treating myself lately?”
- Sometimes I talk to my husband or close friends about any anxieties or fears I have, especially when I become fearful around my direction, life’s purpose and self-worth.
- I work with a Life Coach. Coaching has helped me to understand myself better, adopt a self-compassionate attitude and reach my goals.
Finally, The New Morning Routine:
When I open my eyes in the morning now, I look for things I am loving:
- A beautiful sky right outside my window.
- My husband snuggled right next to me.
- My comfortable pillow that helped me get a good night’s rest.
- My able body that is eager to embark on my morning walk.
I still check my phone for messages from family, but I do my best not to open any social media apps until I have nourished myself with purpose and revitalizing energy.
In a nutshell, comparison is inevitable, essential and very helpful; however, it’s vital to learn to tell the difference between positive and negative comparison.
Developing awareness and becoming mindful of negative comparison can be a game changer.
The less we compare ourselves negatively to others, the healthier our relationship with ourselves will become.
This also impacts how we connect to other people.
We’ll come across more confident and satisfied.
Thus, we become champions of other people’s successes and wins. This contentment informs how we carry ourselves in the world and how we allow the world to treat us in return.
Learning how to release the inclination to constantly compare ourselves to others is not an overnight change; it is an ongoing journey that takes awareness, reflection and accountability. If you would like the support of someone who’s been through this journey and can help you navigate your own, book your free strategy session today and I’ll help you put some practices into place that will allow you to feel more satisfied, confident, and fulfilled in your life.