The Comparison Compulsion
Sara Gilman, Psy.D., a psychotherapist who works with Olympic-level and elite athletes on improving peak performance and mental toughness, says that social comparison is normal—to a point.
“Comparing yourself to others can be a strong source of motivation and direction,” she says. “Our culture and media are filled with messages of what someone should strive to be. But unfortunately, those messages are not always reasonable or realistic.”
Moreover, instead of comparing apples to apples, we compare apples to oranges. The woman with the toned abs you compare yourself to at the gym most likely inherited a different body type than yours, so she builds muscle more easily or burns fat more quickly. The images you see on social media are usually significantly altered and filtered to look perfect. (Remember, nobody is perfect. And the woman with the great abs undoubtedly has a body part she’s not happy with.)
From Self-Confidence to Self-Doubt
Constantly making unrealistic comparisons between yourself and others can leave you feeling like you can’t measure up, which tears at your self-worth and can result in mental health issues such as depression and feelings of failure.
Comparison also causes you to focus on others rather than yourself, which sets the stage for feeling that you’re not “enough.” When you start worrying that you’re not strong enough or fast enough, you set off an internal dialogue that can spiral downward into anxiety and self-doubt.
“This leads to mental distraction that throws you off your game,” Dr. Gilman says. “Instead of feeling confident and empowered, you end up draining your system of the vital energy that you need to be successful, both mentally and physically.”
Moreover, comparisons can negatively affect relationships with friends and workout buddies. If you’re envious of one another’s accomplishments, it’s nearly impossible to also be supportive of each other and truly celebrate when you reach milestones.
Change Your Focus
Instead of comparing yourself to others, says Dr. Gilman, compare yourself to yourself. How well are you doing compared to where you were a few weeks or a month ago?
“Comparing yourself to yourself gives you vital information on your own progress and how to get closer to your goals,” she explains. “It keeps your focus on self-improvement.”
Of course, making this behavior change may be easier said than done. For some people, it may be an ingrained thought pattern that needs to be unlearned with time and effort, but it is possible.
The first step is to be aware of your thoughts; in other words, catch yourself making comparisons, and shift your thinking.
“To increase mental toughness, it is imperative to be able to notice when focusing on others is a distraction and redirect your focus on your own performance and goals,” says Dr. Gilman. “Learning mental skills such as empowering self-talk, visualizations and breathing techniques can help you bring your mind and energy back to yourself.”
Also, determine if the comparison is healthy or unhealthy. If the comparison gives you hope and inspiration, and ignites your motivation, then it is giving you energy. Learning how they got to their goals can guide you toward yours. But if you’re thinking things like, “I’ll never get there,”’ or “It is easy for them but not for me,” then the comparison is draining you.
Having a professional trainer or coach can go a long way toward helping you stay focused on your individual goals. A health and exercise professional can set realistic benchmarks and develop a specific plan to help you reach them, as well as make adjustments and “course corrections” along the way to keep you on track.
“Self-confidence is about believing in your self,” notes Dr. Gilman. “Not about yourself in comparison to someone else.”