And Then There is You, By Michelle Slater, MFT Intern
As a therapist, one of my interventions is to help my clients identify and examine those faulty and erroneous thought patterns that result in anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Social comparison is one of the most common and often emotionally detrimental thought distortions that I see in my day-to-day practice at the Therapeutic Center for Anxiety and Trauma.
Research has shown that the human brain is hardwired to make comparisons. It’s easy to imagine why early humans would have engaged in these comparisons for survival where strength, youth, physique and virility determined a person’s ability to survive. Flash forward a few hundred thousand years, the practice can be downright destructive to a person’s sense of self-worth.
We are all, each and every one of us, a rich, colorful tapestry of experiences and interactions that begin forming us from the moment we make our first appearance in this world. Our conditioning, all the negative and positive aspects of our evolution, and everything in between, molds us into a singularly unique combination of personality, views, tastes, talents, interests and desires.
If we are giving too much credence to these automatic comparisons, whether in terms of waist line, apparent charm, personality, sex life, talents, achievements, relationships, intelligence, material possessions, yoga poses, paychecks, I trust that you get the idea, when we focus our attention on these comparisons, and start battering ourselves with judgments we may feel less than! We judge ourselves as lazy, anxious, depressed, and it is simply because we have quite literally abandoned ourselves for someone else's truth. I guarantee you, that the moment you leave yourself in this way, you will find discomfort and suffering.
Social Media serves as fodder for this particular distortion in thinking. Notice that people don’t generally post their worst moments, their failures, i.e. “just signed divorce papers!,” or “lost my house,” “spouse cheated on me,” you get the idea.
People do post glowing selfies with their partners and friends and children, their weight loss goals reached with before and after photos, memes, their trophies, vacations, yoga poses overlooking the ocean, standing under waterfalls… new jobs, promotions, births, marriages,…. They make the cut…But when we are comparing ourselves to those edited moments, most often, we do not make that cut. Therein lies the distortion.
So what can we do? Knowledge is power. Realizing that the brain can default to these comparisons, notice when this happens. Notice how it feels in your body when you think slip into comparisons and choose to give these thoughts as little power and time as possible.
Try a different angle
If I were to compare my savings account to someone else’s, I could feel like a “failure”, yet it’s possible that I could shift to the incredible memories and the unique experience of all of my travels and experiences living abroad. Even potential “failures” and personal losses have resulted in some of the richest experiences of my life.
Think another thought.
My favorite remedy to painful comparisons is to know my self and my detailed character traits and to focus on them. One of the best ways to do this is to familiarize yourself with your very own personality. Consider learning about your Myers Briggs personality type. This personality test can be eerily accurate, though there is nothing woo woo about it. (It is based on the research of Carl Jung.)
Another way that I steer myself away from comparisons is to focus on the tastes, talents and activities that make me ridiculously happy, the more unique the better. I love snorkeling more than words. (Notice, it’s non-competitive.) I sing while riding my bike. I prefer introducing myself to and having legitimate conversations with dogs over their humans any day. Lemon ice-cream is my happy place. I could win an olympic medal in parallel parking.
Allow yourself to be inspired!
When I compare myself to my friend Amy at the gym, ohhhhh, it’s not good. When I consciously shift that self-criticism from “Ugh” to “Wow!”, I open a door to learning, curiosity, to growth, to admiration and the possibility of feeling inspired by her and by others.
Practice is necessary any time we are choosing a new approach. Change and growth occur on a continuum and take time. Knowing that our thoughts are not the truth, we can start to practice which ones feel better, we can look at old thought patterns in therapy and notice how they have and have not served us.
The author of this lovely piece, Michelle Slater, MFTI, is currently accepting new clients and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-272-6858 x707.