The Mighty Logo

How Falling Into the ‘Comparison Trap’ Impacts Your Mental Health

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Oh how right he was. Ever find yourself scrolling social media, seeing your friends’ posts and feeling like you’re somehow falling short? Obviously this comparison thing, this sneaky thief of happiness, has been around far longer than social media has. You know the phrase, “keeping up with the Joneses?” For years Americans have been comparing themselves to their neighbors, trying to climb the social and economic ladder, accumulate more, do more, be more — all in an attempt to capture that elusive happiness.

The age of social media, however, just makes it that much easier for us to compare ourselves to others on a daily basis. I’m certainly guilty of this. In fact, I’m so guilty I deleted my Instagram account years ago after reading an article about how Instagram is the worst app for your mental health. It talked about how Instagram paints a picture of a world through filters that often make people and things appear more beautiful and appealing than they are in real life. That, in turn, can lead to us seeing everyone else’s beautifully filtered pictures, and then looking at our own life and feeling like it might just be a little “less than,” which can contribute to feelings of depression and low self-esteem.

I decided I didn’t need to waste my time looking at this stuff and feeling this way, so I deleted the app. Actually, I kept it and started a new account, but used it solely to follow my celebrity crush, Jason Momoa, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, after my husband recently began showing me beautiful pictures of national parks and fall foliage in my favorite places like Maine and Montana from accounts he follows, I decided maybe I’d start using my Instagram again. I’ve been working hard on this whole comparison thing and it’s really improved my sense of self since I’ve been more aware of the damage constantly comparing yourself to others can have. It’s important to be aware of this, especially if you struggle with depression or anxiety.

I’ll share a little glimpse of the comparison trap I sometimes find myself falling into, in case you may be able to relate. I think we all are guilty at different times in our lives of falling into this trap; after all, it’s human nature to compare. But I also think having a chronic illness can make the trap that much deeper. The health issues that I live with because of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome have definitely affected me in ways that cause me to feel like I’m lacking or falling short in so many areas of my life.

I think the biggest one right now is that I haven’t been able to work this past year. Our jobs often seem to become our identity, which is clear when we meet new people and they ask, “So, what do you do?” It’s been a big blow to my self-worth since I haven’t been able to work. I found myself falling into the comparison trap a few weekends ago when I was at a bachelorette party, surrounded by a bunch of beautiful, dynamic women, all with amazing jobs. One owns her own graphic design company, another her own candle and beauty goods company and another is an accomplished flutist and teacher. I found myself looking at these women and thinking:

“Wow, then there’s me. No job. Doing nothing with my life. I kind of suck compared to them.”

Yes, these are the conversations I have in my head sometimes. Not so nice.

So, I had to stop myself. I reminded myself that our self-worth is not determined by our careers. I am a beautiful and worthy person whether I’m employed or not. I’m currently dealing with some really tough health stuff, and doing the best I can right now with the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m still making a difference in the world and connecting with others in similar situations as me, through my blog and other avenues. I’m trying to educate doctors about Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks, and have shared my experiences and a bunch of resources with others who think they may have the same diagnosis. I’ve been thanked countless times in the past year for sharing my story and advice.

My point is, if you’re not able to work right now, please don’t think you are anything less than amazing. You are worthy of so much, just because you’re here on this planet. Go easy on yourself. A little self-compassion can go a long way.

I also find myself falling into the comparison trap and feeling sorry for myself when I’m scrolling social media, seeing my peers post pictures of their children and their beautiful families. My husband and I have been married for eight years now, and we haven’t had kids yet. I can’t believe it’s been this long sometimes, and each of those years have just seemed to fly by, not feeling like the right time yet because of my health. So many days I’m just so exhausted and in so much pain I can’t imagine adding a child into the mix. I want one so badly. But I just don’t think it would be fair right now.

I am doing somewhat better after my last procedure to help my CSF leak, but I’m still having daily headaches. My doctor explained that when you’ve had a CSF leak for so long, your body tries to compensate for the leak by making more CSF. When your leak is finally patched successfully, your body often doesn’t realize this and keeps making too much fluid, which now has nowhere to go, causing a different kind of headache from too much fluid and pressure surrounding the brain. My body should eventually adjust, but my doctor said it could take months. So I’m just waiting. Still in pain, but hopeful these new “high-pressure headaches” will ease over time. And praying when they do, I can have the child I’ve always longed for.

So that’s a little glimpse of the comparison trap I often find myself falling into. Can you relate? If so, I hope you can keep in mind what you’re seeing on Instagram or Facebook is not the whole reality of people’s lives. We have to remember what most people tend to share on social media are their peak experiences or the most flattering news and photos of themselves and their lives. Everyone has difficult things they’re going through that they often choose not to share. It’s important to remember this.

I think that one of the best ways to combat the negative effects comparing yourself to others can have is by practicing gratitude. If you find yourself feeling “less than,” take some time to list all of the positive things in your life. Consciously seek out the good and write it down. You can even flip the comparison by not focusing on how others appear to have things better than you, but by thinking about how good you have things compared to what others may have. For example, I could see people posting pictures of their beautiful houses and think:

I wish I had a bigger, nicer house.” 

And I could start feeling down.

But I can also think:

“I live in a safe neighborhood, and am lucky enough to own a cute cozy home, when there are others out there living in a cramped apartment, struggling to get by.”

There are even people out there with no home at all. Similarly, while I might not be the most amazing cook out there, I have food on my table every day, and that’s more than some people have.

It’s all about perspective. We have a choice in how we view our world and how we let our thoughts affect us. We can either constantly compare ourselves and our situations to others who seem to have it better than us, or we can take stock of all we do have and be thankful for it. This is really important for our mental health. I encourage you to choose perspective over comparison — perspective, which tells us we are abundantly blessed, versus comparison, which constantly tells us we got ripped off.

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail have a motto: “Hike your own hike.” This means to resist the urge to compare how many miles you’ve covered in a day to how far other hikers have traveled. I love that. It’s something I now tell myself when I find myself getting lured into that darn comparison trap. It’s important to keep in mind you just never know another person’s actual circumstances, no matter how things may appear. That’s why it’s so important to hike your own hike. And that, I think, is the key to this elusive happiness thing.

Unsplash image by Daria Litvinova

Originally published: November 13, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home