“Can you remember who you were, before the world told you who you should be?”
– Charles Bukowski
“My best friend tells me I suffer from ‘comparanoia’!”
This was the first time I’d heard the term – not a diagnostic term but a colloquial one. Annie meant that she chronically compared herself to others. She was ‘paranoid’ that she was inferior to others.
Annie even worried that she compared herself to other people more than other people did!
After information gathering, hearing Annie’s story, I reassured her that we all, at least most of us, compare ourselves to other people.
Do I measure up?
Other people are the mirrors in which we can see ourselves. Someone is only said to be good or excellent or terrible at something, or in some way, through social comparison.
I can only know if I’m good at, say, high jump, if I can jump higher than most other people. If I never come into contact with other jumpers, I can’t know whether jumping 7 feet is good, bad, or average.
Tarzan, raised alone by apes, wouldn’t have known if he was smart, handsome, or strong, except by comparison to the apes. He would have had no way of discerning relative values or forming beliefs about himself as a human being.
If you often compare yourself to others, you’re not alone. More than 2,000 years ago the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were already writing about how people compare themselves to other people.1 Looking to others to get a sense of our own ‘worth’ has been going on for a long time.
More recently, social scientist Leon Festinger developed ‘social comparison theory‘, which basically states that there is a natural drive within most people to evaluate their own attributes (looks, wealth, capabilities) by looking to others. Are we up, middling, or down in a hierarchy of values?
Up or down?
Festinger hypothesized what perhaps already seems obvious – that people compare themselves either upwardly to people of greater status (however determined) or downwardly to people less well off, less able, less beautiful, less gifted, and so on, than themselves.
We tend to believe we are more like the people we consider to be above us, and less like the people we consider to be below us. It’s hardly an objective view, of course, but our view of how favourably (or unfavourably) we compare to others is often a contributory factor in our level of self-esteem.
We’re often told to not care what others think but, some self-comparison is necessary to be a socialized and adaptive human being. Up to a point, anyway.
“You do you!”
Yes, that can be sage advice, with the implication that the person being encouraged to ‘do’ themselves needs to let go of social comparisons or caring what others think and live on their own terms.
But social comparison isn’t always or unequivocally a bad thing. After all, we are social creatures who have survived through the ages by banding together. A safe way to do this is to look to see how others are reacting, and react the same way.
People who never look to others for cues as to how to behave tend not to integrate particularly well within social groups. Some conformity, knowing how to fit in, is an adaptive survival tool. But like any tool, it needs to be there for us to pick up and use when we need it, not to abuse ourselves.
Learning to self-compare
Social comparison also has a developmental role for us. At a certain age I didn’t know whether I was good or bad at drawing, or running, or music – I just did me! I enjoyed these activities for their intrinsic reward, before praise or encouragement taught me that I could be good or bad at these pursuits in relation to other children.
Praising children and encouraging them is vital. But a possible outcome of overpraising and comparing them to others – “You’re the best at this!” – is that they might start to lose interest in doing the activity for its own sake. Intrinsic reward, doing something just because you love doing it rather than to be the best, is an important component of wellbeing.
If a child starts to see an activity as merely a tool for assessing their worth in comparison to others, or a method of eliciting praise, then something valuable is lost – and the child may learn that their value is determined purely in relation to other people.
Bit by bit, children hear other children described as being good at this or that. They themselves are praised for ‘doing well’ or ‘being good’, or they see other children being praised and wonder how they compare.
They begin to see that they are placed in a hierarchy of approved behaviours and values.
It’s impossible not to develop a sense of self-comparison over, say, the age of three just by being exposed to other people.
And then we grow further.
Social comparisons in hyperdrive
Teenage years, in particular, are often a time of almost desperate self-comparison to other teenagers. At this time we may start to derive our sense of self almost purely through comparison to others.
Wanting to be the best can be a great driving force, of course, but assuming we are superior in all ways may lead to a fragile kind of narcissism, just as assuming we are worse than others can tip us into hopeless low self-esteem.
The tendency to self-compare can be put into hyperdrive through the use of social media, which provides us with millions of people to compare ourselves to. Social media usage shows a worrying correlation with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.3 Scrolling through the images and profiles of thousands of ‘superior’ others night after night can, not surprisingly, damage self-esteem. Everyone might seem to have a better life than you in that place of perpetual performative perfection we call social media.
So being able to compare yourself to others is a tool for managing your integration in society and your personal development. It can be useful to inwardly compare yourself to others sometimes. However, when social comparison becomes a dominant mode of functioning, you are more likely to harm yourself with it than help yourself.
And this is just what Annie was doing.
A one-way ticket to misery
So far, so unsurprising. Some people compare themselves relatively little to others and some people compare themselves almost continuously. But constant comparison really is a one-way ticket to misery. Why? Because if you’re looking for something, you’ll find it. If you look hard enough, there is always someone bigger, stronger, richer, prettier, cleverer, or happier (at least outwardly) than you think you are.
Annie told me, “I’ve done this [chronically compared herself] for as long as I can remember. Was I as good academically, was I as funny, interesting, beautiful as the other girls?”
With three sisters and no brothers and having attended a private, single-sex school, Annie now exclusively compared herself to other women, not other men.
Social comparisons happen with those like us
Leon Festinger theorized that if we perceive someone as very different, perhaps culturally or through gender, or in a totally different grouping or with a totally different set of values, then we are less likely to worry about comparisons with them.
And of course, values can change over time.
Being the fastest runner in the class might be important to an 8-year-old boy. But when that boy grows up, having the most interesting or well-paid job may be more important to him. Values change over time, and how and to what we compare ourselves becomes predicated differently.
Annie was a high achiever. She compared herself to other women in her social network who were also high achievers, many of whom she described as “having it all”.
So how did I help Annie cease lacerating herself on the bitingly sharp self-criticisms of her comparanoia?
Here are a few approaches I used with her, which you might find useful too.
Tip one: Raise awareness
We can encourage our clients to become more aware of their self-comparing tendencies, as well as the negative impact that it can have on their self-esteem and overall wellbeing.
I encouraged Annie to become aware of her triggers for self-comparison episodes. One was scrolling social media. We got this habit down from an hour a day to an hour a week. Another was feeling inadequate when she met up socially. And yet another was seeing young mothers out and about and feeling that somehow they had achieved more than her.
She had attained two PhDs and taught in a highly regarded university, yet she still felt like a failure in comparison to most other people.
I asked her to start spotting when she did this and to note it down and tell me during the following session. Only when your client can notice their damaging thoughts and behaviours will they have the opportunity to implement strategies to mitigate them.
Next up, we worked on helping her start to see things differently.
Tip two: Reframe comparison
We can encourage clients to reframe their thinking and focus on personal growth and progress rather than comparisons to others. Remind clients that everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and that success is subjective and personal.
I began to talk of “differences not deficits”. This phrase stuck with Annie.
Annie was a highly accomplished academic. But she said she sometimes felt like a “loser” because she was less extraverted than many of her friends and because she had never had children.
We talked about personality differences, and through careful Socractic questioning, in which I simply asked questions and let her form her own ideas calmly, she told me her friends valued her for herself because her self was not like most other selves. They liked her because she was different, she concluded.
She told me that she was starting to feel she didn’t need to “apply a hierarchy to pluses and minuses in human nature and circumstance!”
Annie also began to actively and consciously challenge her thoughts as they arose.
Tip three: Challenge negative thoughts and mobilize the inner defence attorney
We can encourage clients to question the validity of their negative thoughts and help them develop a more balanced perspective.
I asked Annie to verbalize some of the thoughts she noticed within herself when she felt bad in comparison to others. She offered the following:
- “I’m a failure because I don’t have kids!”
- “Other people are amusing. I’m boring!”
- “I have no dress sense.”
- “I’m ugly! They are beautiful.”
- “They’re so fit. I’m a slob!”
We talked about the nature of all-or-nothing thinking and extremist thought, in which people see things in “completely this” or “completely that” terms. Annie was prone to perfectionism and what I’ve called ‘headline thinking‘, and this idea was useful to her because she could spot the pattern in herself.
I asked her how she could bring some nuance and ‘shades of grey’ to her emotional thinking at times when she was prone to using all-or-nothing thought in damaging ways.
As a thought experiment, I asked her to describe what she’d say to a friend with such negative beliefs about herself.
This exercise enabled her to look at some counterevidence to her beliefs, such as that people seemed to like being with her. Some people laughed at her witticisms, which were understated but still funny, and she had been asked out recently by a man who evidently found her attractive.
When we constantly accuse ourselves, we can also get the inner defence attorney working. What are the mitigating circumstances, what is the counterevidence, and what are the exceptions to these sweeping self-accusations?
But before we do this we can help deal with the feelings, not just the thoughts, of comparanoia.
Tip four: Work on emotional conditioning and self-compassion
Annie had memories of feeling not good enough.
I asked her to hone in on that feeling of inadequacy or ‘comparanoia’ and see what memories if any came to mind.
Soon a particularly painful memory of feeling like a “wallflower” at a party when she was 6 years old came to mind. She hadn’t thought about that time for years, but the feelings she had now of falling short of others seemed to closely match the very feelings she’d had at that party all those years ago – of feeling “different, left out, and not as good” as the other girls.
Using hypnosis I invited Annie to build up a great sense of all she’d learned and become since that long-ago party. With a sense of her resourceful self, I had her go back to that party and comfort her young self and tell her it’s going to be fine. This is the Helping Hand technique.
We reached the point where Annie could recall that party with a sense of self-compassion and calm.
I also helped her hypnotically rehearse feeling calm and self-compassionate during the types of situations in her current life in which she’d be prone to feel like a poor version of other people.
We can also help our clients cultivate self-compassion more generally. Encourage clients to be kind and compassionate to themselves, rather than overly self-critical. I wanted Annie to develop a more positive and accepting self-image by encouraging her to treat herself with the same kindness and compassion she would extend to a friend.
We can help our clients get a wider perspective in other ways, too.
Tip five: Encourage the gratitude attitude
When we compare ourselves unfavourably to others we are, by default, not focusing on what we do have. In fact, we are specifically focusing on what we don’t have: “If only I could have what so and so has! If only I could be more like X, then I’d be happy!”
Feeling grateful for what we do have and experience reduces our propensity to compare ourselves unfavourably to others. Gratitude conveys all kinds of benefits.
I asked Annie to write down three of her strengths every morning, even if it was the same strengths every day. At the end of the day she was to write down three things she could feel grateful about from the day. In her log she wrote things like:
- “It was a beautiful morning and I loved seeing the sunshine through the branches of a tree.”
- “I had a fun conversation with a stranger in town who was interested in local history and seemed to like what I could tell her about it.”
- “I ran 20 minutes on the treadmill in the gym and didn’t need to stop once!”
Cultivating gratitude primes the mind for positivity and switches off negative self-comparison.
Tip six: Encourage a growth mindset
One thing that struck me about Annie’s comparanoia was that some of it consisted of envying her friends’ social confidence and financial status.
It was as though she felt that some people just had these qualities – and she didn’t, and therefore couldn’t do anything about it.
And yes, some people do have more social calm and ease and extraversion naturally, but we can all learn to become more like that.
We can encourage clients to focus on their own personal growth and development, rather than comparing themselves to others. Help clients set achievable goals that are specific, measurable, and focused on their own progress.
Annie could become more socially relaxed, better at dealing with her finances, and healthier and fitter (which was something she had initially felt less able to be in relation to others).
What’s more, she could compare herself to herself rather than other people. If, in a year’s time, I can appreciate that my French is better than it is now, then my comparison is with my own progress and no one else’s.
During Annie’s final session she eloquently described how she felt whole lifetimes could be wasted fighting so hard to be other people we forget to be ourselves!
I asked her if she wanted to be a carbon copy of her friends. She smiled and said:
“No, I want to bring something new to the party!”
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