Why Do We Compare Ourselves To Others When It Makes Us Miserable?
The Debrief: For 2016, Lizzie Pook pledges to quit sizing herself up, for the sake of her sanity
Illustration by Jack Bailey
Every morning I wake up, head to the bathroom and spend a couple of minutes appraising my shower curtain. ‘Alice [she's my cousin, fact fans] wouldn’t have a shower curtain like this,’ I think. ‘Hers would be crisp and bright and mildew-free. It would smell of tulips or Chanel No. 5. Not flaccid old sponges.’ I’ll then shower – using shampoo my friends who shop in Selfridges would balk at – and dress in clothes I wish looked more like my sister’s. Next, I’ll have cereal for breakfast, and take a quiet moment to berate myself for not having chia seed pudding like everyone with a ‘fitspo’ account on my Instagram feed. Then I’ll finally settle down to work at my desk in the spare room – which is much smaller, and much shittier than the spare rooms of absolutely all my friends with spare rooms.
Get the gist? I’m a chronic comparer. And quite frankly, it’s exhausting. I’m the girl who stares at your beautiful, thick hair on the tube, and questions why mine has a texture more like Donald Trump’s. I’ll become fixated on the woman walking in front of me in the street, because she has lovely slim calves while mine look like sides of plump ham. I get waist envy at the gym, arm envy in the supermarket aisle and even bloody collar-bone envy (I have been known to actually cry over Topshop adverts). It sucks.
And it’s not just about looks, either. This constant obsession with benchmarking myself against other women extends to my career too. I once got a promotion at work and refused to allow myself to celebrate, because other, younger women I know were outstripping my achievements to an embarrassing degree – writing funny magazine columns about their ridiculous dates, or posing in fashion shoots dressed head-to-toe in Chanel. And this tendency to measure myself against others means I easily lose sight of my own achievements. Even now, if I get good feedback about something I’ve written, I’ll smile politely but then think, ‘Yes but it’s not a fucking book is it? Lucy has a book deal...’
Even my love life is not immune. Just last week, me and my boyfriend went for dinner with another couple, who spent the whole meal calling each other ‘honey’ and nuzzling into one another’s armpits. Every so often I would look incredulously at my boyfriend, and I’m very sure he assumed I was raising my eyebrows at their crass public displays of affection. He had no idea, of course, that inside I was actually screaming, ’MY RELATIONSHIP IS A SHIT SHOW!’
Now, this obsession is in danger of spiraling out of control. Almost daily I’ll worry about whether I should have a baby, because it inevitably wouldn’t be as clever or as cute as my friends’ babies. Or I tell myself I should never have a wedding, because it would be a washout compared to my friends’ impeccable ceremonies – each executed with military bridal precision and personalised napkin holders.
But I know I’m not alone in constantly chastising myself for falling short of where I feel I should be. Sure, there are plenty of women self-assured enough to go through life without giving a toss about where others are at, but there are also many of us who can’t leave the house without weathering these constant bullets of comparison. Research carried out by Iowa State University suggests that a woman’s identity and sense of self worth is shaped significantly by our relationship to other people. One recent study even suggests that 50% of UK women actively ‘enjoy’ comparing themselves to other women (masochists). But really this shouldn’t be surprising, given that this social comparison is something we’re naturally inclined to do. “From birth, we are programmed to covet things that are ‘good’, things that are beautiful, or things that make us successful,” says psychologist Emma Kenny. “And on a primordial level, we are constantly seeking partners in order to procreate. Therefore other women who are – in our minds at least – more attractive and who have these beautiful things or keys to success become a threat.”
But just because this is natural behaviour, it doesn’t make it healthy. In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger popularised something called social-comparison theory. He argued that we all have the hardwired tendency to assess our self-worth by comparing ourselves to other people. He also argued that this self-sabotaging behaviour invariably results in feelings of insignificance and insecurity (like when the onslaught of engagement parties and smug promotions on Facebook makes us want to bury our heads in a trough full of of Angel Delight). Festinger’s theory has been bolstered by more recent research, too, that has found that making social comparisons, especially "upward" ones (against people we think are ‘above’ us) can cause depression and decreased self-esteem. Bad news all round.
So how do we fix it? Firstly, we can try to re-frame our perspectives when it comes to measuring up. Comparing ourselves to others can actually be a valuable way to identify our own ambitions, and seeing others do well can be more motivating and inspiring than any tearful Sunday night pep talk with our mum. It’s also worth remembering that the majority of stuff people put on social media is just plain bullshit (after all, a fifth of young people admit their online profile bears little resemblance to reality). 'When we compare ourselves to others, we tend to do it around one aspect of their world,' adds Kenny. 'We don’t look at other women as multi-faceted people with their own problems, their own issues and their own stories. We look at their nice physical appearance and then equate that their life must be great. It never actually tallies with reality, but it makes us feel bad about ourselves nonetheless.'
Ultimately though, in order to keep our comparison obsession in check we need to shift the focus from other people to ourselves. We need to invest our energy in something far more productive and less toxic than envy. We need play to our strengths and use our comparative natures to help us get a better perspective on things (yes I hate my fat knees but at least I have a house and a job). Really, though, I think we can all agree we just need to be a bit goddamn easier on ourselves. And that’s what I plan to do. Care to join me?
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