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How to Get Out of the Comparison Trap

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistOctober 5, 2018

We all let comparison get the best of us sometimes—I’d bet that even people you most admire wish they were as smart, rich, beautiful, or funny as someone else. And I’ll admit I’m prone to my comparisons, too; what starts as admiration of a colleague can easily morph into wishing I could write as well as they do, or that I had an Instagram feed like theirs.

Psychologists call this tendency “upward comparison,” and it has many downsides. Not only does it make us feel bad about ourselves, it rarely motivates us to do any better.

Probably the most obvious solution to comparison would be to focus on yourself instead. After all, you are the only valid control condition for yourself because no one else has had exactly the same advantages, challenges, or experiences as you.

This is great advice, but it’s easier said than done. Even if we want to focus on ourselves, our brains seem to be wired to make these upward comparisons. What’s more, our Facebook and Instagram feeds are cluttered with images of everyone else’s awesome life. On social media, everyone’s above average.

So how do we keep comparison in check? When you catch yourself doing it, try this:

  • Ask yourself whether you’re being too narrow in your comparison. It’s easy to find one area where someone else seems better than you, but are they person superior in every way? Or do you have strengths they might wish they had?
  • Make a downward comparison instead. Bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists because they compare themselves to the rest of the competition that didn’t make the podium; silver medalists do an upward comparison to the gold medalist. So if you think you should own a bigger home, for example, consider the countless people who are homeless.
  • Practice gratitude. Upward comparisons are a close cousin of envy, and the antidote to envy is gratitude. Don’t try to make yourself feel grateful since it’s hard to directly change our emotions, and certainly don’t criticize yourself for a lack of gratitude. Instead, invite gratitude by thinking back to a younger you and imagining what that person would be excited to see in the life you’ve created (a technique I learned from my colleague Rachel Hershenberg, author of Activating Happiness).

When you do find yourself making upward comparisons, use it as a reminder to take stock of where you are today. What’s one step you can take to continue moving toward the person you want to be? And what will the you of tomorrow thank you for having done today?

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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