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The Comparison Game

Curbing the tendency to compare yourself to others while helping your child too.

Do you have a child who is constantly upset because they compare themselves to others and feel like they fall short? Do you do it too? The tendency to compare oneself to others is a painful, yet human tendency. It’s usually related to the state of a person's identity. In fact, there are specific situations in life which make an individual vulnerable to sliding down the comparison rabbit hole.

Adolescents, teens, and young adults are susceptible to chronically comparing themselves to others because of their developmental phase: identity formation. From 12 or 13 on, kids are attempting to figure out who they are in relationship to the outside world. Growing older requires a person take significant steps towards independence, which demands dozens of decisions a day about who they are going to be.

For example, “How am I going to dress?” “What music am I going to listen to? Am I going to study? What classes and career do I pursue? Who do I want to associate with? Am I kind? Do I want to be an athlete? Am I wearing too much eyeliner? Am I thin?”

Deliberating about this stuff is exhausting, so kids often attempt to take a short cut by comparing themselves to others in order to help them figure it out. For example, a child may (subconsciously) say to herself, I don't know if I am smart enough, so I'm going to compare myself to my classmates to help me decide.”

Unfortunately, this is a lose-lose situation. No matter what, there is always someone skinnier, prettier, richer, smarter, etc. And if a child decides she is the smartest in her class, it is a tenuous quality to secure herself with, because it is fleeting, especially if she decides to challenge herself with difficult coursework or a more competitive school. Win or lose, the comparison habit inevitably makes a child feel worse, and is often based on superficial qualities that don't reflect the essence of who a human is.

Adults may also find themselves playing the uncomfortable comparison game. Typically, this is the result of a substantial life change which has forced them to re-consolidate aspects of their identity. Events such as a divorce, a new job, an empty nest, a break up, retirement, etc., require an individual to shed aspects of who they were, leaving them feeling temporarily anxious, insecure, and confused.

Moreover, it's irrelevant whether this change is desired or not. Any significant change in a person’s life requires an adjustment to be made regarding who a person was and who they are now. Frequently, the vulnerability a person experiences during the re-consolidating process is the catalyst for comparisons.

It's critical for adults to remember how they felt at these times because it allows them to understand what their child is struggling with. It enhances a parent’s ability to be empathic, and empathy is the most important intervention.

The first set of tips that follow help parents who are attempting to assist their kids with the comparison issue, and the second round of suggestions assists adults who are struggling with the issue themselves.

How to Help Kids:

  1. Empathize. Say things like, “You are worried you are not good enough. I get it, honey. I feel like that some of the time too.” Or “You feel like you are the only one that's different. That's hard. I understand." Or "It hurts to see someone get what you desperately want. Keep plugging. Good things come when you keep trying.”
  2. Validate character before achievement routinely. For example, instead of congratulating your child on her three soccer goals say, “The way you stuck with the girl you were defending and fought for the ball was great. Super job passing the ball up field. Great teamwork, honey.” These statements value tenacity and selflessness higher then achievement.
  3. Say, “I love who you are.”
  4. Spend one on one time with her or him and do something silly and fun.
  5. Encourage participation in a mind and body activity such as yoga or tai chi. These activities bring out the essence of a person and allow a person to feel whole, centered, grounded, and soothed.
  6. Tell him funny and remarkable stories about her or him as a very young child so he or she realizes who he or she has always been.

How to help yourself:

  1. Yoga, tai chi, or other mind and body activities help.
  2. Spend time with the young or the old (they, naturally, remind us of who we are).
  3. Remembering it's depth of thought and emotion that make a person exceptional.
  4. If you have love in your life, you've made it.
  5. If you feel deeply for others, you are heroic.
  6. If you can make someone's day because you are warm, kind, and human, you've changed the world for the better.

Life is largely about the ability to fight through anxiety and stick with something long enough to find a comfortable stride or niche. Don't let the comparison game paralyze you. Keep running. You've got this!