The Comparison Trap

I want you to picture a scenario: You’re an actor in Los Angeles, waiting tables between gigs, casting workshops, classes and auditions, in order to pay the bills. You clock in to begin your shift at the restaurant when you receive a text from a friend. She excitedly relays to you that she has landed a role on a new tv pilot (you can feel the elation through her effusive use of emojis alone). Your first thought: Yay! You know how hard she has been working and recognize the magnitude of such an awesome opportunity. Plus, you really care about her, and it’s nice to see her happy.  You text her your congrats, and then head back to the server station to grab the refill coffee pot. As you begin to circulate the dining floor, pouring coffee into empty mugs, you find yourself reflecting on what this news means for you. You think to yourself, Why am I not on a show? Panic begins to rise. A cascade of thoughts, concerns and judgements start building on top of one another, and start careening down on your self esteem;   What does she have that I don’t? Should I work out more? Dye my hair? Get a new agent? Will I be waiting tables forever? I must not be any good at all if SHE can get a gig and I haven’t.

And on it goes…

Welcome to the comparison trap.


It can be challenging to gain perspective in an industry that appears to thrive on competition. After all, the number of paid jobs available to actors, writers, visual artists, etc is wholly disproportionate to the number of those who are auditioning/applying for those gigs. Suffice it to say, to get noticed, and then to actually get hired is no small feat. But all of this doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t get your dream job, or that you won’t find joy or contentment developing your craft.


I believe that the key to pursuing your dreams in a highly competitive environment lies in not only focusing on your goals and talent, but making a conscious effort to choose connection > comparison.


There’s a reason it’s called a comparison “trap”. Comparison, in itself, is not an entirely negative thing if harnessed and used to our advantage. Self-comparison has the potential to help us to take stock of where we are in our lives and make decisions about where we want to go. When it is wielded as a weapon to beat our self-worth into the ground, however, then the trap is set. We may compare our situation to someone who appears “worse off” in order to feel better about ourselves, fostering a false sense of being “better than”. Or, we may compare our situation to someone we deem as “superior” with the intention of motivating ourselves. But using comparison to calibrate self-worth can be tricky, especially when it backfires. We can find ourselves left with feelings of shame and inadequacy, rather than the inspiration we originally sought out. Comparison requires that someone must always be in some state of deprivation in order for someone else to feel worthy. As you might imagine, this only keeps us in a state of disconnect and isolation  (For a more detailed look into Social Comparison Theory, check out this article).


Rather than use comparison as a measuring tool of self-worth, we would do better to remember that our self-worth is inherent. Pia Mellody, a leading expert and author in the field of codependency says: “I have inherent worth. It cannot be raised by my strengths or lowered by my weaknesses or defects of character.”  In other words, our circumstances will change, we will have more than others at times and we will have less than others at times, but our self-worth remains constant because it is not tethered to how much we have or what we do.


To compare ourselves to others is instinctual. The good news, however, is that it can be managed - even leveraged to enhance our well-being.  It just takes a shift in perspective, some tactics and some practice.


What to be mindful of when you find yourself in the comparison trap:


Others’ success is not about you.  I like to use the following analogy: when I attend a birthday party for a friend, I fully expect for the focus to be on celebrating her. If I spend my energy lamenting the fact that we’re not celebrating me, then I am missing out on an opportunity to be present, connect and strengthen my friendships (all important components to emotional well-being). Furthermore, celebrating my friend does not take away from the fact that, I too, will get the opportunity to be celebrated on my birthday. But today is not my birthday.  


Collaboration > Competition. I don’t know about you, but when someone genuinely rejoices in my success, I feel supported in a way that inspires me to reciprocate; to celebrate in their accomplishments, share resources, referrals and advocate for her. You never know when a friend might recommend you for an opportunity or gig, or put you in connection with someone who can enhance your career. Shifting the energy from one of competition to one of collaboration, and celebrating each other’s successes along the way, can feel much more inspiring and uplifting, and arouse motivation. 


Look for clues in your envy.  We can use other’s success as a way to motivate ourselves to live up to our own potential. It’s completely normal to have feelings of envy, and they often serve as clues to our deepest desires. In these moments, try making a habit of asking yourself what it is you are reacting to. Is someone doing something that you’ve always wanted to try, but you have been too afraid to, for example? Or maybe that person is reflecting back certain actions you know you need to take in order to get to where you are wanting to be? Once you can pinpoint what it is, spend some time reflecting on how you can manifest it into your own life.  Refocus your energy, and use your unique talents to put your own personal spin on it - make it your own!


Avoid Assumptions.  When we see someone who projects a sense of success or achievement (either on social media or in person), we may experience a myriad of assumptions: they were born with success, that it came easy to them, or that they were just lucky, etc.  To be fair, some people do have opportunities fall into their lap. But we tend to forget that we have no idea what their path looked like; how many career transitions they’ve had or how many times they’ve risked and failed. We’re not privy to the meltdowns, near bankruptcies or struggles with mental or physical illness, strained relationships or years of rejection…(in other words, all of the compelling, and necessary character-building struggles found in The Hero’s Journey, or the Second Act of any movie, ever).  


If we are honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge those times when we have carefully curated our own image (either on social media or in person) to communicate a specific message about ourselves, too. I encourage you not to take everything you see at face value, nor assume that this one moment in time is the totality of another’s life experience. I promise you, it isn’t. Life is so much more complex than how it appears on Instagram.


And speaking of Instagram…

Image courtesy of  @wordsmeetwalls

Image courtesy of @wordsmeetwalls

Modify Social Media Use.  In addition to taking social media breaks or detoxes, get intentional about use and content. Follow those you admire. Unfollow people you don’t know, and/or who stir up feelings of jealousy, insecurity or rage. And definitely unfollow those you “hate follow” (oh, don’t worry, we’ve all been there).   


Examine Personal Expectations.  Some of us might have grown up as the golden child in our families, where we were expected to excel. Others may have experienced trauma(s) which caused us to feel “less than” and overcompensate for our insecurities. Or maybe we grew up in a household where our caregivers constantly compared us to a sibling or relative. Whatever your individual story might be, it’s helpful to work with a professional to uncover the origin of these (unrealistic) expectations you hold for yourself.  With understanding, you can begin to learn how to unfetter yourself from this burden and put yourself back in the driver’s seat.


Finding a therapist who can help you navigate The Comparison Trap will be beneficial to your self growth, and help to free you from the need for outward validation. Contact us for a FREE consultation, and get back on the path to regaining your rhythm.