Picture this. You have a few minutes to yourself and decide to open Instagram or Facebook. You are scrolling and see a few photos and updates that make you smile. You like, heart or comment on them.
Then, you stop. Something has caught your attention, but instead of smiling, you feel a little pit in your stomach.
You aren’t feeling happy for your friend or the individual you follow. Instead you feel bad. About yourself.
Maybe you see a friend travelling – again. Or it’s a new house, job or car. Maybe you follow an influencer who is hiking on a Wednesday morning while you are at work in your cubicle.
Whatever it is that caught your eye, all you know is that you feel bad instead of happy for that person. It’s the comparison trap.
And while it’s not limited to social media – it happens in real life all the time – it’s definitely more prevalent now that we have instant access to everyone’s life highlights in our highly connected online environment.
It Hurts because It Matters
The reason you stop on that post and feel the pang in your gut? Because it resonates with you. You have placed value on the thing you are seeing, and you have measured yourself against it.
We don’t feel bad about the things that aren’t important to us. Those don’t hold any weight because you don’t place value on them, or because you feel comfortable with how you measure up.
The comparison trap is swift, and while we cannot help the emotion that pops up, we can decide to use it as a tool.
Yes, comparison is the thief of joy, but it’s going to happen. So how do we respond when it does?
Use Comparison to Your Advantage
Comparison is actually an incredible teacher if you are willing to listen. Here are some suggestions to leverage the trap.
1. Name it. When you feel comparison, jealousy or envy, call it what it is. Name it. Acknowledge when it is happening to you. There should be no judgement about this feeling since it’s universal. Do you feel ashamed for feeling happy or surprised? Those are also universal emotions.
2. Identify the value. It matters for a reason, and you have assigned value to it. Give it some thought since it might not be immediately obvious. The person hiking on a Wednesday morning, for example. You feel bad, but why? Because you value being outdoors in nature? Do you value exercise? Do you value flexibility and being able to hike on a Wednesday morning? Do you value time alone?
3. Test the value. This may seem strange, but push back on the value. Does this actually matter to you or is it something you feel like you should value? Your friend just bought a house and you are renting an apartment. Everyone around you says you should own your own place, but home ownership is not actually that important to you. Or, maybe you do want to own a home. It doesn’t matter which one you decide, but it does matter that you decide for yourself.
4. So what? You named it. You identified the value. You pushed back to check it’s legitimacy for you. So what does it tell you? Do you want more time outdoors? Do you want to own a home? What have you learned about yourself?
5. Now what? What are you going to do about it? You now know what you actually value, and perhaps you are not where you want to be. What actions can you take so you spend time on the thing you value? How can you make room in your life? And while you work towards it, can you reframe how you view this when it is right in front of you again?
Reframe or React
The way I see it, you can reframe or react. You can reframe how you respond when you see or hear about the thing you value. You can take action on the thing that matters so you can have more of it in your life.
And, I believe you can do both at the same time.
Let’s use an example.
Greg notices a negative emotion comes up when seeing friends completing races. He sees their smiling faces crossing finish lines and wearing race medals around their necks, and instead of feeling happy for his friends, he feels bad about himself.
Deciding to learn from the feeling of comparison, he does some digging and realizes he is assigning the values of commitment to goal achievement and regular physical activity.
Greg thinks about these values – commitment to goal achievement and regular physical activity. Yes, these two things are really important to him. In fact, when he considers his life, he realizes he does incorporate regular exercise into his life, but it’s just not the type that involves organized race events. And, upon further reflection, Greg has a number of examples in his life of achieving goals through commitment, they just aren’t necessarily sports related.
It turns out Greg is living according to these values, they just look different than his friends. Spending some time focusing on the value he assigned to the posts enabled him to reframe what he’s experiencing in response to seeing these kinds of posts. They no longer make him feel bad about himself.
But, maybe it has been a while since he committed to a specific goal, and he’s looking to change up his regular exercise routine. Greg has the option to act and do something about it. This doesn’t have to look like his friends’ achievements, but maybe it does.
Perhaps he joins a running group, or signs up for a race in 6 months’ time. He can make room in his life in order to prioritize this over other things he values less. His comparison reaction highlighted something that would be a welcome addition to his life.
It’s Called a Trap for a Reason
I thing it’s worth mentioning that while I believe you can reframe or react as a way to respond to the comparison trap, it is also difficult work. It takes some time, and it can be uncomfortable to dig into why you feel bad about yourself.
It’s called a trap because it catches you when you aren’t expecting it. The majority of us don’t go looking for reasons to measure ourselves against others and feel bad about it. That being said, once you start naming it when it happens, you will notice patterns. And, you can take steps to avoid stepping in the trap over and over.
Let’s say you notice a certain person on social media tends to make you feel bad about yourself. While it’s helpful to reframe or react, perhaps while you are working on that, consider unfollowing that individual for a while. It’s the same as not purposely stepping on an actual trap. When we know where the traps are, we can work on avoiding them.
The Gift of Clarity
Having spend a lot of time thinking about this concept – learning from comparison – I have come to believe the best outcome is greater clarity. The past couple months, I have been paying close attention to when I feel comparison, jealousy or envy. I’ve been taking stock and diving down to figure out what actually matters to me. Getting clarity. And, I’ve made some changes because of it.
That’s the beauty of clarity.
Clarity allows us to act with purpose. Just like a lens corrects blurry vision, clarity enables us to see what we actually need to see. It leads us in the right direction.