Comparison permeates our society down to a subconscious level. We know measuring our own success or value against other people is unproductive, we set goals to focus on ourselves, we try to recognise the unique character of our pathways through life. Yet, this is much easier preached than put into practice. From bloggers who have seemingly mastered the Instagram algorithm to friends with enviable wardrobes and social lives, we find ourselves disheartened by our own relative ‘shortfalls’, because stepping back and observing the bigger picture – the futility of pursuing something superficial – on a day-to-day basis can be a tricky skill to master.
I’m all too familiar with this phenomenon and have been since a very young age. Growing up in Russia, every little girl aspires to be either a gymnast or a ballerina at one point, attending countless clubs and practicing for countless hours in her spare time. I did too, I tried my hardest and aspired to stardom, but just did not have the genetics nor an immaculate sense of rhythm, flexibility or grace required to enhance an audience – as much as I to this day am awestruck by anyone who does. Equipped with the power of hindsight, I know my talents lay in other areas which family members such as my mum and grandma tried to refine, but because my social circle measured appeal through your competence in the performing arts, the length of your hair, the size of your dad’s car, I started life feeling somewhat undervalued.
Moving to England settled me in a society which is much more lenient, a meritocracy which emphasises social mobility and equal opportunities for everyone. It was a shock to the system. But, ‘young people culture’ is quite similar everywhere, in the sense that children and young teenagers champion certain traits and ostracise those who behave, look or speak differently. Beside the pressure of integration (learning a new language and customs from scratch), I saw myself as inadequate in comparison to people with enormous social circles and girls with a reputation for their external beauty. Once secondary school started, this atmosphere of competition became much more pronounced. I was neither a fabulous extrovert nor gifted with the voice or looks of an angel, and made myself miserable in the pursuit of happiness supposedly associated with such attributes.
Moreover, the advent of social media didn’t have the best influence on me in my early teenage years. Back then, I didn’t see platforms such as Instagram as sources of positivity and a network of likeminded people, but as a showcase of people I perceived as infinitely better than myself. While being far from the primary cause, social media hindered my eating disorder recovery in many ways. And even as I started college, with those dark days behind me and much more accumulated wisdom, I questioned why I wasn’t as objectively pretty as the girl with 200k followers, while changing my personality to fit what I perceived to be societal definitions of ‘likeable’ (a futile endeavour – people sense fakery. You are much better off being yourself and attracting personalities similar to your own).
(Yes, my attempt to take blog photos was met with unfavourable weather conditions and 200mph winds but let’s admire my attempts at the windswept look, lol)
In summary, I spent hours comparing myself to people who are objectively different to me, both in their purpose and pathway through life, but possess traits enshrined within society. At a certain point, however, I thought: ‘this is actually kinda pointless’. I stopped wearing heavy makeup, I reduced the amount of time I spend online, I focused on what mattered: my studies, my self-development, the people I trust and love with all my heart. And this change of mindset has had an unprecedented impact on my overall happiness.
Now I will propose a question which must inevitably be asked: is comparing yourself to other people in any way always a bad thing? I don’t think it is. After all, we are encouraged to find role models for a reason, and potentially become role models ourselves. Looking up to other people with whom we share values and aspiration is empowering and allows humans to learn from each other within a spirit of solidarity. However, the key mistake we make is looking up to the wrong people, and for the wrong reasons, not in the sense that what those people are doing is objectively unworthy but because it has little relevance to neither your individual capabilities nor vision of an ideal future. To illustrate what I mean: between 2015 and 2017, while grinding towards the completion of my IB diploma which was the main objective of the time, I spent a few months working my makeup skills up to ‘grammable’ standards and made myself quite miserable in the process. Of course, if you want to be a model or a makeup artist, that may have been a worthy investment of your time. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with matching societal ‘beauty standards’, whatever they may be, but anyone who doesn’t (aka, the vast majority of us – I’m yet to figure out who commands these standards, and until I do, they shall lay firmly in the eye of the beholder) must try to recognise their ambiguity to avoid a lifetime of discontent.
I guess the key message to derive from the above arbitrary mess of a ramble is: search for what empowers you. Discard all that evoked doubt and bitterness. It is okay to see other people as positive examples, but destructive to question your worth because of them. But, how do we actually go about turning comparison into empowerment?
- Search for role models who have a direct resonance with your values, career aspirations, ideal qualities, instead of chasing after something irrelevant simply because it’s championed as a prerequisite condition to happiness. Embrace your individuality and remove negative influence from your life, which can involve anything from unfollowing certain accounts on social media or distancing yourself from particular groups of people.
- Complementing the above point, you must have a clear understanding of what success and happiness (which should go hand in hand) look like to you. Have you been conditioned to believe that a certain thing will lead to inevitable satisfaction, or arrived at such a conclusion on your own accord? A good test is to analyse whether you enjoy the means as much as the ends; does the process make you as happy as the outcome?
- Attitude matters. After visualising what our idea of success looks like and finding the right role models to look up to, try to do so with admiration and a drive for self improvement in your heart, not jealousy. Instead of spiralling into self-denunciation because so-and-so is richer than you, or has a better family life, or a successful blog, observe the habits and philosophy which allowed them to achieve this. Then, find ways to integrate them into your life and unique circumstances. Do not copy and accept that you cannot, and shouldn’t want to be, an exact replica of that person, but can nonetheless learn from their experiences.
- Gratitude matters just as much. All of us are familiar with the importance of loving the present moment and the ones which have led up to it. The future is awe-inspiring, but while we should strive for continuous self improvement, taking a moment to reflect on what you’ve achieved thus far in life and (for example) write down three things you are grateful for as part of your morning routine is a key tool to acquire an optimistic, productive mindset.
- Excuse the worn-out metaphor, but we only see the tip of the iceberg of someone’s life, a glamorous preview stripped from complexities. When your mood is dampened by the perfection of someone’s existence, the beaming faces and designer footwear scattered through their Instagram feed, acquire a skeptical outlook and remember that the extent to which social media portrays real life is, at best, questionable. The stability and content you see in public does not portray what happens behind closed doors and inside people’s heads. Moreover, we are rarely exposed to the struggles leading up to a final outcome and the hand work exercised by your role models in the pursuit of their goal, which creates the illusion of success happening by luck, or overnight.
Inspiration, moreover, can be found everywhere you look, not just within living people (although they are nonetheless significant). I find empowerment in historical figures and events, in recurring themes and lessons: the need to account for the practical realities and constraints of your circumstances in the pursuit of grander objectives, that the capacity of individuals to have an impact is not to be underestimated, the mobilising power of language. When you read (and you should, because certain written pieces are capable of transforming our world views in their entirety), focus on each sentence and think about the message espoused by the author; find empowerment in both non-fiction and literary characters, who often embody a set of beliefs which either accelerate or impede their development.
The natural world itself can be empowering in its lack of prejudices or lies – each one of us can draw a lesson applicable to our identity from the Earth. Observe seasonal change, the wind’s raw momentum, the ebb and flow of the ocean across a pebbly beach. This is why I like to go for walks whenever I feel frustrated or uninspired: as well as distancing myself from technology and unnecessary information for a few hours, I find myself charged by new energy when I return home. I’m not an overly spiritual person, but think we can learn a lot from our planet and avoid negative comparisons by sometimes looking beyond people for empowerment.
To summarise this slightly unstructured post: if you struggle with comparing yourself to others take some time to determine what empowers you instead, what reinforces your motivation to succeed and achieve wellness in all areas of life. This can be anything from role models to fictional character, religion, intricate forces beyond our control. Subsequently, replace sources of unwanted negativity either physically (such as unsubscribing from a particular channel on YouTube or quitting an activity you no longer enjoy) or through thought patterns with an assured edge. I have struggled with comparing myself to other people for a long time, and often still do because the possibility of doing so is everywhere and tricky to avoid. However, I have learned to tune into my own aspirations and skills, trying to recognise that surface appearances often mask a different truth, all while questioning why we are inclined towards morose comparisons when seeking empowerment and accepting our uniqueness would be a recipe for a much better world.
Let me know in the comments: how do you deal with the tendency to compare yourself to others, and if so, how do you fight against it? Who, or what, do you find empowering?
Lots of love, Maria ♡