The Comparison Trap: Why It Sucks And How To Avoid It

Comparison can be harmful.

Women are used to being pitted against each other. Whether it’s for male attention, for career success, for recognition, in the race to keep up with the Joneses, or as part of any other imagined rivalry, the constant competition is exhausting.

This comparison trap is one that we all fall into. Where does it originate, and why is it so prevalent amongst women? Possibly from the long history of gender inequality that is only now beginning to be rectified. When so few opportunities, advancements, and places at the table have been available, and so little value is placed on women across the board, it’s no wonder that some sense of competition creeps in.

It wasn’t necessary before, and it’s certainly not necessary—or helpful—now. Here’s why.

1. It’s bad for our mental health

Constantly comparing ourselves to others isn’t just an annoying habit. It can have real effects on wellbeing—and that’s backed up by science. This review of relevant studies, for example, suggests that social comparison has a significant association with depression and anxiety. Other articles explore the links between social media, the ultimate platform for comparison, and negative mental health effects.

The science is there, but it’s something that we don’t really need scientists to tell us. Anyone who has experienced feelings of jealousy or spent significant time or mental energy comparing their life to someone else’s will know that it is not a good feeling.

2. Social media is not real life

As mentioned above, social media can be a huge instigator of the comparison trap. Of course, any social media platform is inherently neutral, simply providing a service—and it is a tool that can be used positively to connect, to inform, and to create community. However, it also often serves as a highlight reel. Intentionally or unintentionally, we tend to post the best bits of life and exclude the messy ones. This means we are comparing our real lives in their entirety with a small, sanitized snippet of someone else’s.

Women have so many expectations on their shoulders. In the past, we were expected to keep house and care for kids. And while it’s fantastic that many more doors are now open to us, it becomes difficult to juggle everything. Seeing wonderful holidays, home upgrades, lavish weddings, clean and tidy offspring, promotions, and glamorous careers splashed across Facebook and Instagram can make it feel that we are lagging behind. In reality, nobody’s juggling it all perfectly. Those killing it in one arena are often struggling in another—but that’s hard to discern from behind a screen when all of these magic moments are hitting us at once.

3. We rise by lifting others

When it comes down to it, the comparison trap is based on a lie. The lie is that attention, success, happiness, and other good things are a zero-sum game; that to get more of these things we need to take them from others. The truth is, that’s not the case. In fact, supporting others’ happiness and success can increase our own.

Women have come together throughout history to lift each other up—that’s how we gained the right to vote, to own property, and many other rights that were once denied to the female population. We don’t lose out by supporting other women, we rise alongside them.

Guess what? That’s not just a platitude. It’s supported by research too. A research article discussed in the Harvard Business Review in 2019 found that in a business leadership setting, women with a close inner network of other women achieved higher positions and higher pay. Here’s a snippet:

“However, because women seeking positions of executive leadership often face cultural and political hurdles that men typically do not, they benefit from an inner circle of close female contacts that can share private information about things like an organization’s attitudes toward female leaders, which helps strengthen women’s job search, interviewing, and negotiation strategies.”


Where to from here?

The first step in breaking free of the comparison trap is to recognize it and realize that it is harmful. Then we can attempt to change our thinking in the following ways.

  • Stop making assumptions about other women’s lives. If you aren’t close enough to get a comprehensive image of what their life is like, recognize that you are probably just seeing the highlight reel.

  • Avoid the things that trigger your comparative thinking and cause you to spiral into the trap. Curate your social media feeds to remove or unfollow those who post a lot about things that make you feel particularly envious or inadequate. That could be luxury travel, personal maintenance, impeccable style, expensive home décor, organic attachment parenting, or anything else—it’s different for everyone. Understand that other women having and doing those things is not bad or wrong in any way, but seeing them may be harmful to you personally.

  • Focus on gratitude. When more of your mental capacity is taken up with appreciating the things that you do have and for which you are grateful, there’s less time to compare.

  • Define your own success. You may compare your own messy house to someone else’s immaculate one, but is that really what you aspire to? Take a moment to think about what success means for you, and rather than comparing yourself with others, hone in on what you yourself can do to get there.

It’s referred to as a trap because it’s far too easy to fall into. Everyone is on their own unique path, and no matter how it may appear to acquaintances in real life or on social media, no-one has every aspect of their life together. Comparison is not only fruitless, it is harmful.

Women have historically made their biggest gains by coming together and helping each other. Recognizing the power of the feminine collective and focusing on our own battles, successes, and goals while supporting others in theirs is the best way to be happy and healthy.

So let’s come together, share experiences and help one another - the more you give the more you receive!!

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