“A child who is not seen truly and deeply by her parents does not learn to see herself truly and deeply.”
Thousands of people stand at the starting line waiting for the race to begin. Performing some last-minute stretches, Jessica looks around at the other runners. “She’s way too thin, but I’d give anything to have that problem,” Jessica thinks while sizing up the woman in front of her. Looking down at her own well-worn running shoes, she wonders what the guy stretching next to her does for work to be able to afford such expensive ones.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jessica, the overly thin woman in front of her (named Vanessa) was behind Jessica at the registration booth earlier and had already decided that she love to have the naturally rich, brown hair with red highlights that Jessica has. “Why was I born with such mousy blonde hair?” she had mused painfully while feeling inadequate about herself.
Neither Jessica nor Vanessa has any idea that Fancy Shoes, whose actual name is Josh, had checked out both of them earlier and, after assessing each of their fitness levels, had decided that they were both way out of his league. “All the guys at this race are so much more athletic than I am. I would never stand a chance with either of those women,” he had already decided sadly.
I hope the story above of Jessica, Vanessa, and Josh conveys the absurdity of comparing yourself to others. But don’t be fooled: just because it’s absurd does not mean it’s not serious.
In my 25 years as a therapist, I have heard an infinite number of comparisons made. In reality, there is always someone richer, thinner, more successful, happier, healthier, stronger or smarter than ourselves.
It’s true. All we need to do is look around us and we will see them. Someone who is, in some way that happens to be important to us, better.
Why You Compare Yourself to Others
- It’s natural. Humans are social creatures. It is natural to look around and assess those around us, to some extent. Often we may notice people who appear to be inferior to ourselves in some way, and this makes us feel better about ourselves. Unless you do this habitually, with a desperate need for reassurance, or follow it up with treating others as inferior, then it’s not a real problem.
- You do not feel in control of yourself or your life. We all have times in our lives when we feel out of control of what’s happening. Life is full of unexpected challenges and events, and when you go through such times, it’s natural to feel that your feet are not on solid ground. With your sense of security threatened you may become overly focused on other people and what they have or don’t have. You may use comparisons to validate what you are already thinking about yourself or your situation. So you think to yourself, “See, I knew I was better (or worse) at that than most people.”
- You have low self-esteem, low self-confidence or low self-worth. It may seem that having low self-worth might cause you to look for people to whom you can feel superior. But what actually happens is likely just the opposite. You end up looking for, and finding, people who seem better (whether they are in reality or not is another story), and your comparisons cause you to feel even worse about yourself.
- You grew up being often compared to a sibling. Some parents are unaware that comparing their children to each other is damaging. Other parents do it on purpose, thinking that the comparisons will motivate their kids. Either way, if you grew up in a comparing type of family you will be pre-programmed to continue this process with the people around you as an adult.
- You lack self-knowledge. This is, I think, the most common reason of all. As an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have seen how it affects a child to grow up in a family that does not notice or validate his feelings or emotional needs (CEN). A child who is not seen truly and deeply by her parents does not learn to see herself truly and deeply. Growing up with this gap in self-knowledge leaves you vulnerable as an adult. You are left to wonder what is good bad, strong, weak, bright, dull, fun or enjoyable about yourself. What better way to figure out who you are than compare yourself to others? But sadly, it does not give you any real answers at all.
How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Comparing yourself to others does not accomplish anything good. Comparisons will never tell you who you are. They only tell you, usually inaccurately, about what you are not.
Comparisons are a sign that you do not know yourself. You are wondering who you are and whether you are good enough. But you are looking for answers in all the wrong places. The answers you seek are not in the people around you. To find them you must look in the opposite direction. You must look at yourself.
- Changing this entrenched habit requires awareness. You likely make comparisons all the time without even realizing it. So begin with trying to notice every single time you compare yourself. You must be aware of it before you can change it.
- As you increase your awareness it’s time to short-circuit your comparisons before they can fully occur. When you notice a comparison starting you can interrupt it by picturing a giant, red stop sign in front of you and saying, “STOP” in your head. Or find a technique that works for you, and use it.
- Start paying more attention to yourself in general. What do you feel, what do you want, what do you like, dislike and need? What are your true strengths and weaknesses as a person? The answers are all there. They are real, and they are inside you.
In addition to those steps, there is another very important thing to keep in mind. You are, just like every other human being on the planet, a complex mosaic of a thousand different pieces. You are made up of big strengths and tiny weakness, small talents, and big flaws.
It’s only when you see, know and own all of these things about yourself, the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the ugly, you will see that when you add it all up an amazing thing happens.
When you stop focusing on a tiny piece of the mosaic — like body image for Jessica, hair for Vanessa and fitness for Josh — and you pan back and look at the full picture of yourself, you will see how all the pieces fit together. You will see that you are a layered and complex person who cannot be reduced to one small trait or flaw.
And, most importantly, you will see that when all of the pieces of you are added up, you are good enough.
You can access many free resources on Childhood Emotional Neglect at EmotionalNeglect.com, including the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
See the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect for much more about how CEN happens and how to heal it.