One Person You Should Stop Comparing Yourself To

Hint: It’s not who you think

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There’s this one person I’m always trying to measure up to. She’s a prolific freelancer, writing articles for publications she’s always admired. Her thighs and hips aren’t bespeckled in white stretch marks, because she’s a decade younger than me and doesn’t have kids. She seems so carefree and untethered––and in many ways, very much unlike me.

My nemesis isn’t a friend, or even an internet stranger. The person I compare myself to most is a past version of myself — a mental collage of all the happiest, most productive times of my life. Pining for the old days isn’t necessarily harmful, but if I’m not careful, trying to measure up to past Ashley can totally burn me out. It’s like trying to fit into a square into a circle.

While a little healthy competition can boost motivation, comparison can be a major morale-zapper. Research suggests comparing yourself to others can breed envy, low self-worth, and even depression. The rat race won’t make you any more successful, either: When you’re always fixated on what someone else is doing, you lose opportunities to be the best version of yourself. And doing things just to measure up — what psychologists call external motivation — isn’t a sustainable path toward your goals. It’s a lose-lose.

Usually, a bit of cognitive reframing––reminding myself I’m a different person with different capabilities––can help me work my way out of social comparison. For example, when the mom across the street wrangles her four kids out of the van with a smile tacked on her face, I feel a little jealous I don’t have the capacity to have a bigger family. My jealousy dims when I remember her parents live nearby and frequently babysit, and she has a much more easygoing personality than I do. My neighbor and I have unique capacities because we have different resources and stressors. To compare myself to her would be to compare apples and oranges.

Self-comparison is a little harder to escape, because I’ve done the things I’m jealous of. Once, I exercised more, cooked more, saw my friends more, wrote more. Shouldn’t I be able to do those things again? I know, deep down, that as the backdrop of my life changes, my routines will, too. But the “shoulds” keep me chasing.

For a hot minute, it’s exhilarating to run after the parts of me I’ve lost. Over time, though, trying to fit an old me into a new life gets exhausting. I drop the ball on deadlines, snap at my husband and kids, resent my body. The gap between me and the life I want widens.

To resolve that hamster-wheel feeling, I’ve started to apply the same context I’d think about if I was jealous of someone else. Just like my neighbor, my former selves had different capacity because she had different resources. I cooked, ran, and hung out with friends every night of the week because I had time. I was carefree because I had no responsibilities beyond my phone bill and student loans. I definitely wasn’t living through a global pandemic.

Next time I find myself frantically burning the midnight oil to impress my 22-year-old self, I’ll remind myself she had a lot of things I don’t have. But I’ll also remember she lacks some pretty important things: two sons, a husband, and the hard-won wisdom to know the difference between apples and oranges.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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