There’s a famous 2008 study in which two capuchin monkeys were placed side by side in glass cages and prompted to complete the simple task of handing the scientists a pebble. In exchange for correctly following instructions, one of the monkeys was rewarded with a cucumber, which she was perfectly happy to accept…until she noticed that the other monkey received a grape (i.e., a sweeter, yummier treat). Outraged over this inequity, the first monkey literally HURLED the cucumber back at the scientist and rattled her cage in protest.

As Theodore Roosevelt once wisely said, comparison really can be the thief of joy. And yet, it feels impossible to avoid — it’s an impulse that is equal parts primal (as demonstrated by the monkeys) and destructive. It’s the twisted oxygen that breathes life into an infinite number of angsty conversations I’ve had with friends, coworkers, strangers I’ve never met on Instagram and even internally with myself, spanning everything from career to relationships to body image.

If the urge to compare is too strong to ignore, if we’re always our own worst critics, what’s the secret to contentment? Is there an effective means of lessening the sting of feeling less than, or maybe circumnavigating it altogether? I turned to Dr. Lisa Firestone, a practicing clinical psychologist, for some expert advice. Read her five tips for dealing with comparison below, and meet me in the comments to discuss further.

1. Examine where the urge to compare yourself might be coming from.

“Oftentimes our parents compare us to others, whether it’s a sibling or another child, and that plants the seed in our heads,” says Dr. Firestone. “A woman recently came to one of my workshops, and her mother would always say things to her like, ‘You’re prettier than those other little girls’ or ‘You’re smarter than those other little girls,’ mostly because she wanted to be the mother of the prettiest and smartest little girl. It was more for her than for her child. Now, any time this woman goes into a room, even in her 40s, she compares herself to everybody there. I mention this example because it shows how important it is to think critically about why we compare ourselves and when. Picking that apart and identifying the source or the origin can be helpful in diminishing its power.”

2. Channel your impulse to compare into something productive.

“When you’re jealous of a trait or behavior that someone else possesses, think of it as an opportunity for self-improvement — not in a self-critical way, but in a self-compassionate way,” says Dr. Firestone. “With the right perspective, making observations about other people’s success can actually be empowering. Instead of asking yourself why you don’t have what they have or haven’t accomplished what they’ve accomplished, ask yourself what you can learn from them.”

3. Be mindful of how social media can falsely exaggerate perfection.

“Social media has given us access to comparison all the time, 24/7,” says Dr. Firestone. “You used to only hear about the successes and failures of people you knew personally, but now you’re hearing about everybody all the time. Not only that, but people have a tendency to want to share only their best parts on social media, which paints a skewed picture. It feeds into our fear of missing out, our fear of not having enough or not doing enough. Everyone can smile in one photo on their vacation, but that doesn’t mean they were happy the whole time.”

4. Keep a journal of your critical inner thoughts.

“When you write down your critical inner thoughts and start to unpack them, it’s easier to tell when they’re distorted,” says Dr. Firestone. “You’ll start to poke holes in what they’re telling you about yourself. This is an exercise I often engage in verbally with my clients. I see a young man who tends to compare himself a lot, especially to his roommates because they’re well-employed and making a lot more money. But when I started challenging what his critical inner thoughts are saying, like asking if he even wanted to be in the same field as his roommates, the answer was ‘no.’”

5. Spend time around people who genuinely care about you and make you feel good.

“Friends or family members who make you feel like yourself — those are the people you want to be around,” says Dr. Firestone. “However, I don’t mean you shouldn’t spend time with people who help you grow. Find people who appreciate you just the way you are but also help you problem-solve when you need it or push you out of your comfort zone. Explore activities that make you feel capable and fulfilled. Focus on creating meaning in your life instead of constantly trying to measure up to an intangible standard of your own invention.”

Photo via Getty Images. 

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  • Adrianna

    Whenever I envy or compare myself to someone else, I try to remember how someone else might perceive my life on the surface level – I have a long term partner, I live in a nice neighborhood in Brooklyn, I work for a “modern” company, and I recently started traveling, moreso than my childhood friends. It’s a good way to count your own blessings and remember that the person who travels more and lives in a nicer apartment than you may also be struggling with their own problems and anxieties.

    • Kubla

      Yes! And even the ‘curses’ may be blessings in disguise.

  • Emily

    I am a terrible over-comparer (new word). It affects me so much, probably ridiculously so. Mine is so bad that I regularly have to come off social media for longer periods of time, particularly instagram, because I compare myself so much. It really affects me, and although I know in the logical part of my brain that its all carefully curated and that person probably spent ages choosing the perfect filter, and it might be a lie (e.g. “omg had the best day EVER with my hubby!!” when actually they spent the day arguing) – the emotional / sensitive part of my brain can’t see that. I came off it for like 6 weeks recently, and the second I went back on it, my anxiety was SO BAD. I spent half an hour feeling terrible about my life, when actually, I should be so grateful for what I have.

    I am definitely going to try and put these tips into practice, ASAP! This was desperately needed for me, thanks Harling!

    • Cristina

      I got off Instagram for a while too, because I compare myself and like you, it was making me crazy. I recently got back on but unfollowed almost EVERYONE I would compare myself too, even if they are friends. I don’t miss it. And I feel sooooo much better! Good luck!

      • gracesface

        I’m guilty of going down a rabbit hole of “the cool girl” and then click on one profile after another…all to see pictures of the life I could be living but realistically have no interest in! It definitely helps to unfollow people like you said!

    • Ema Dell’Orto

      I follow dogs and I think it helps. Even if some dogs have incredible pawrents, successful and so on…

      • Sarah Bauer

        LOL I love this 🙂

  • Cristina

    Comparison is an ugly monster, it’s just the worst! My bff and I know a girl who I think is AMAZING. She’s gorgeous, everything about her is together etc etc. One day, my bff was like “Everything you think about her, I think about you, so I don’t know why you talk about her like she’s the shit”. It was such a reality check. I think the root is definitely because we feel there is something we are lacking. Social media is really the worst. I especially stay away on Valentine’s Day and Christmas because for some reason, people really like to flaunt the latest, most expensive gifts they’re most awesome wonderful best husband/mother/sister in the world got them.

    • Maddi

      You’ve got a good bff 🙂

  • Jules

    instagram is THE worst for this. I have resorted to completely staying off of it, because even after unfollowing fashion and beauty bloggers and bougie celebrities I still find myself comparing my body/life/style/everything to that of my closest friends, who I feel like I can’t unfollow without ruining our relationship 🙁 even though I’m fully aware that their lives are not as perfect as how they are portrayed online, I am still excessively comparing and feeling like I’m worse off! it’s like my brain shuts down as I scroll through insta and my emotions take over

    • Emily

      Jules I AM EXACTLY THE SAME! I cannot help it, and no matter how I try to rationalise it in my head, I just can’t! 🙁 you’re not alone sista xx

      • Jules

        honestly makes me feel better that other people struggle with this too!! I think self awareness is so important so at least we recognize the issue. we’re in this together sista!

    • gracesface

      A few years ago I worried that if I didn’t follow some of my long distance pals on Insta or Twitter that it would also hurt our friendship. Guess what? Those friends didn’t care! And these days, I don’t care! Turns out that the way we keep in touch (text/email) had nothing to do with social media and I felt also like I wasn’t even getting a REAL glimpse into my friends lives when I followed them vs. our actual conversations.

      • Jules

        very good point!! its actually some of my closest friends that I see regularly that I would want to unfollow on insta, because I feel like their online persona is not at all how they are in real life and I really don’t like the content they put out there, but because of our closeness it feels harder to unfollow them as I feel like it would come up at one of our hangouts and I don’t want that kind of confrontation lol as well as giving my reasoning for the unfollow 🙁 … I think it would be easier to do so with my long distance friends!
        this is all so silly and doesn’t matter yet weighs heavily on me as you can probably tell haha. but I appreciate your insight and I agree that I have felt so much closer to people when I reach out to them personally for life updates as opposed to liking and commenting on their posts every once in a while

        • gracesface

          I have friends who actually are VERY different online than they are in real life which I find weird as hell. But truthfully, I never bring it up to them and they may not even notice if you unfollow them? I wish Instagram had a mute setting. Or I’ve just found that following a bunch of new people pushes other people out of your feed which may be less distracting? Even so, without social media I think we’ll compare ourselves nonetheless! One of my closest friends, who I compared myself with for YEARS recently shared something that made me NOT want to be like her – it just highlighted how different we are and how that can be GOOD thing and we can still be friends! So, you know, friendships can be complicated! But they shouldn’t be stressful. Sounds like you really care and sometimes it can be hard to realize that well, other people don’t care quite as much.

          • Jules

            I wish it had a mute setting too!! but you’re right across the board 🙂 at the end of the day I have to do what is best for my own wellbeing and I can’t let something like social media affect me unnecessarily because really I’m just putting way too much thought and energy into an issue that really doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. Thank you for your comments <3

  • This is the point where I often get hurt because/if I don’t watch out as hell … but from the other side. Most of my life being really (as in: really) hard I have since learned to steal some much-earned pleasures from it, nowhere near enough, but I tend to be overgrateful even for normal things, so all is well in the end. Unless I get caught by an Avid Envyist and deprived of my pleasure :-((( I simply cannot understand people who would destroy other people’s fun without as much as spending a thought on the fact it may not be fair to put oneself first just because of comparison and envy. Of course we all feel envious, more or less, but to act upon it straight away like it was a human right is shitty. In my book.

    • Emily

      hi alcessa, i think i’ve misunderstood what you meant here, do you mean you think its shitty to feel envious of people, and that we shouldnt because they’re allowed to do what they want?

      • NO. NOT AT ALL. 🙂 We are all allowed to feel what we want.

        What is shitty in my opinion is hurting happy people because of envy. Acting upon it without thinking or out of habit or to feel better about oneself. Because you (not you personally) may not know how much a person might have “paid” for that moment of hapiness. And even if you do and it wasn’t much because they always get what they want, it is still strange – there is so much bad shit out there, surely one of the more important reasons the planet still exists are the happy people 🙂

        • Ema Dell’Orto

          Yes but sometimes happiness is blind to other’s sorrows and that can hurt. You can be happy and tactful ! Empathize with people who are less happy / gifted / lucky.

          • I am not happy and tactless.
            I am also not full of myself or gleeful or boastful or mindless. I have no time to spend on blissful recounting of my talents, because I work hard and think too much self- reflection is a waste of time. I simply want my right to feel and look happy without crappy remarks and stupid shit.
            Or ket us do some maths here: in a given group of people, moments of happiness will be appear at different times, to each at their own. So if you are happy for me today, I will be happy for you next week and we will both be happy for … let’s call her Audrey, next week. That is 3x happy. If you hate me today because my hair looks better (it does not), I may not feel happy for you when yours does and Audrey will hate us both before we even turn to her. That is 3x unhappy for no good reason.

          • Ema Dell’Orto

            I didn’t mean you were and I see your point which is really interesting and probably right. Maybe some happiness is inclusive and some is not ! When you feel like shit around some people, is it only because of you ? I don’t have the answer !
            I remember one day I was so sorry for what I didn’t have that I just cried when I received a text from a friend who just happened to have what I wanted. At this moment, I really wasn’t happy for this friend, and his happiness was inclusive for sure. I still feel ashamed of this reaction. I couldn’t help. I’m not sure I would do better today and I’m not sure it makes me an horrible person.

          • Oh, I do think being unhappy or envious because someone has it better is normal and not really something to do away with! I am not really that different, though and nothing about your reaction says Horrible Person to me! It was a specific situation and we are all entitled to those.
            The only thing I am actually angry about is when people (as a rule, repeatedly, mindlessly, because they tend to use others as objects to elevate themselves) act upon these urges and try to diminish other people’s happiness actively.

    • kay

      this is some deep stuff here, that we are all capable of. thank you for writing about the more outward facing (not internalized) aspect of comparing. that is a huge and important topic. <3

      • Thank you for understandig my ramblings 🙂

        Maybe I also should have added I find it quite easy to feel responsible about my feelings for … “active pleasure spoilers” and would not hang all of them straight away, it is just … bitter if you are happy and need to be careful who you show it to … It accumulates, the bitterness, despite being responsible about it.

        • kay

          no that totally makes sense, you put it really well. it is so exhausting trying to defend against that.

          • kay

            i should say where my thoughts are: there are these one liner aphorisms out there that i dont love bc they are overly simple and exaggerated, but they can be good starting points, and the one that could apply here is: violence is rooted in shame. when ppl see other ppl doing well they can feel shame that they aren’t and then turn that shame into violence, like social violence, verbal violence, i think is what you’re talking about. and it really does work to alleviate their shame, by giving them power over the person who “made” them feel shame. we are all capable of this and we are all capable of doing better than this. the basic “throwing under to get over” coping mechanism is another layer on top of internalized comparing, but its related and common and hard to defend against.

          • Thank you for this, wonderful food for thought!
            Funnily enough, I have learnt to respond with short sarcasms (“verbal bites”) in such situations, because I love the release of unhappiness this enables.

  • I recently realized that I kind of complain all the time. Which is a direct result of me comparing myself to others and being jealous of what I don’t have. How awful! I was really unhappy with my work/life situation and in my quest to change a friend recommended I read “The Power of Your Subconscious Mind” by Joseph Murphy. I highly, highly recommend it! The book touches a lot on points 2 and 5. Recognize success in others, have a true desire for yourself to be happy, and when you appreciate yourself and that positivity attracts positivity.

  • Alice

    I’m in such a low self esteem moment I compare myself to so much women my age I see on the streets. I’m good at not comparing myself on social media but irl it’s the worst.

  • Dani Heifetz

    Thanks, Harling!

    This article left me wondering what do you do when you compare yourselves to those in your life, and what happens when feelings of comparison turn into feelings of resentment? I find myself comparing myself so much more to those in my life, who I can see beyond a one-dimensional social media personality. It’s a lot harder to pull back from comparing yourself to (and even resenting) another person who may objectively be a positive person, but in reality leaves you feeling less-than.
    Thoughts?

    • Vic

      I also do this. I have frequently found myself resenting my partner or close friends which then gives me another problem to get angry at myself for. I try to remind myself of successes I’ve had that they haven’t, areas of my life where I am doing well, regardless of whether others are doing well in these areas too, and how I have plenty of time for future successes and failures, just like everyone else in my life. Sometimes i think about how someone said they were proud of me or congratulated me on a past achievement and I try to do the same no matter how hard it is. This also teaches me to cheer on the people in my life as they have done the same for me.

      • Dani Heifetz

        Those are all really great tips, thank you! 🙂

  • Kubla

    I think it feels natural to compare because of our innate compassionate natures, where we feel sympathetic joy or compassion for others. But this gets distorted in comparison when we want others’ joy (or pain) for ourselves. How weird really, because there is enough to go around!
    Also our society is built on ‘not enough’ which makes us panic and want to accumulate more – hence we are of course comparing to see who has more. When I see the societal lies designed to make me act a certain way, I can relax. I can share others’ joy and pain.

  • Mariel

    this may be wrong and maybe not recommended but compare myself to the others has kinda helped me to keep moving in order to be better and it works it really does, but again it’s probably not the right way to do it so idk

  • alexeptable

    It is so good to see these kind of discussions out in the open. I’m in my early 30s and a lot of my friends and people I surround myself with are very successful, popular, attractive and better off than me and, because of a lifetime of bad mental health, I constantly feel jealous or like I’m missing out somehow or am undeserving of that level of attainment. For me social media isn’t a big trigger, but I do frame myself as a “failure” of sorts because my life so far hasn’t turned out as I’d hoped and I often feel like it’s “too late”. What makes it worse is bottling it up because feeling like that makes me feel like a bad person. Maybe (probably) we’re all just too hard on ourselves and we frame those insecurities in the context of the people around us. I’m just glad I’m not alone!

  • Rachel

    I honestly never thought about WHY I would compare myself to others before. But after reading this, it makes sense… I typically compare myself to others in terms of money and career success, and growing up, I always felt inadequate to my younger sister, who got better grades without seeming to try and always seemed to do what my parents wanted, again without trying. Unlike me, who was messy and disorganized, got meh grades and constantly felt prone to arguing and talking back to my parents…

  • CamBam

    “It feeds into our fear of missing out, our fear of not having enough or not doing enough. Everyone can smile in one photo on their vacation, but that doesn’t mean they were happy the whole time.”— Last week I was having a conversation with my work bestie and I told her that even though I was really happy traveling by myself in France for two weeks, it was rough. She was kind of schocked. I told her that people don’t see that behind the one or two pictures I posted on IG, I had one day where I was crying the entire time I was on the train from Nice to Cannes and I had to call my mother because my anxiety/depression hit me like a rock and that some days I felt truly lonely.
    Also last year when I got hit with adult acne, I was not only constantly comparing myself with others but also with my former self. I would look at pictures of high school and college where my skin was flawless and get even more depressed. Yoga and meditation have helped me a lot since then and I have to periodically tell myself of how far I’ve come and that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) has their own battle that they are fighting, it’s just that most of the time you don’t see it.

    • Erica

      i used to have REALLY bad “mountain range” skin as my friends and i would say in high school. i felt so ugly, alone, and embarrassed to go outside knowing my skin wasn’t looking or feeling its best. i would overeat to compensate for my feelings of shame and self consciousness – which probably didn’t help my skin get better!

      but then my mom helped me to realize that it’s only temporary – it’s not forever! your skin is constantly changing. and stressing about pimples/acne only makes them worse. try and remember you’re not alone in this! everyone has ups and downs with their skin – but it’ll pass 🙂

  • Esme

    I recently shut down my longstanding personal IG account and created a new one with a pseudonym so that I only follow accounts that inspire me, businesses, etc…
    I don’t post anything personal about myself (I.e. no pictures of myself), only photos that I shot where I captured something simple and beautiful to me, perhaps at a museum, in nature.
    No need to make it private, it’s my gift to the world, as it were. Only a handful of friends follow me, but I’ve only let them in on my secret garden as they are of the variety that are healing to the soul. No childhood friends, no frenemies, no college or grad school friends.
    It may sound boring, but it serves as the creative outlet that can be instagram, though also, only maintained the good parts of the platform, like following the advice of some of my other favorite bloggers or knowing what’s going on at my yoga studio.
    I had found that the negative aspects of social media were a two-way street. Posting about my amazing life was making me feel shitty, and seeing someone else’s equally curated one was evermore dampening my spirits.
    NO THANK YOU.

    • Alexandra Queiroz

      I feel/think the same way.

  • Basil

    I’ve recently had my second child, and it’s really hard trying to not compare them – baby 1 started doing x at this age, baby 2 is like baby 1 in such a respect. On the one hand it can feel completely harmless, but on the other I don’t want to fall into the trap of constantly comparing my children so that it becomes a habit; I want them to be acknowledged and admired as individuals.

  • I’m a twin and have recently realized I basically only see myself in relation to someone else. I have to REALLY pay attention, especially when I’m in a new setting, because I know it’s my habit to purposefully (though usually subconsciously) position myself as the yin to someone else’s yang so we’re not too similar, making it harder for people–and probably myself–to measure us against each other. As I get older and gravitate to people I like DUE to our commonalities, this can border on inauthenticity which is maybe a separate point but it’s my moral, so.