There are a zillion ways to compare yourself to others, and all of them lead to feeling bad about yourself: grades, sports, job title, income, career advancement, social media followers, house size. Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 ways to stop pining for that greener grass on the other side of the fence.
Tip #3: Reinterpret what’s behind material possessions.
Okay, now, how to handle comparisons about material possessions—your neighbor’s new Tesla, say, or your office frenemy’s Birkin bag?
Well, in an individualistic society like the U.S., where personal choice and self-expression are emphasized, people use their possessions to express who they are—Patagonia jackets and Subarus for the NPR crowd, Vans and PBR for hipsters, and so on.
Research shows that this tendency to define ourselves by our consumerism goes into overdrive when our idea of ourselves is threatened. For instance, one study showed that people made to doubt their intelligence suddenly became more interested in buying brainy accessories, like fountain pens and classical music. Likewise, those made to feel powerless became more inclined to buy expensive cars.
One study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin asked participants to write a brief essay about the three domains of their life—including intelligence, creativity, appearance, career choices, relationships, and more—that made them feel the most confident and certain. By contrast, the other half was asked to write about the three areas of life that made them feel the most doubtful and insecure.
In short, we use stuff to buffer ourselves against uncertainty and doubt.
Once primed, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their car and whether it expressed how they saw themselves as a person or was simply utilitarian. They agreed or disagreed with statements like “My car makes me feel good about myself,” and “My car helps me establish the kind of person I see myself to be,” as well as statements like, “My car makes it easier for me to structure and organize my daily life.”
The result? When made to feel doubtful and uncertain, participants rated their cars as a way to define themselves.
In short, we use stuff to buffer ourselves against uncertainty and doubt. All this is to say that you can read between the lines when you see your friend’s new drool-inducing shoes, bag, jeans, or car. You’re not trying to be catty, of course, but can quietly reframe their flaunting a new purchase as wearing the universal struggle with self-doubt on their sleeve.
Tip #4: Purge your phone.
Unfollow any blogger or guru who makes you feel anxious and inadequate. Delete the apps that drag you down. If you spiral into an insecure funk every time you scroll through Instagram, get it off your phone. You can always reinstall it. But try an experiment—go without for a few days, and see if your self-image magically re-inflates.
Tip #5: Remember you don’t have the full picture.
By now we know that social media is the curated highlight reel of others’ lives. But so is everything else we see in public. Your coworker’s big house might be worth less than he owes on it. Your friend’s new promotion might be inducing stomach ulcers and a secret wish to quit and make artisanal goat cheese.
Comparing the mundane, or worse, the lowlights of our lives only to the publicly available lives of others isn’t fair. Refrain from comparing your apples to others’ apple pie.
Another way to look at this is to remember that you and the object of your comparison are two completely different people. You have different personalities, aspirations, mindsets, histories, drives, vices, and downfalls. In other words, you are unique, and therefore, by definition, incomparable.
Unless you decide you’re both awesome and amazing. Then, compare away.
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