Compare and Despair: How to Deal with Feelings of Inadequacy
It's easier than ever to compare ourselves to other people
Counsellor Yasmin Rashid offers advice for anyone dealing with feelings of inadequacy
If low self-worth or self-esteem is something you struggle with, find a therapist to support you here
‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ is one of the most well-known quotes out there. Perhaps it’s popularity points to a truth? It seems many of us are prone to comparing ourselves to others and familiar with the misery that can arise from it. Comparison is a skill that helps us decide which colour jumper we prefer or where to get the best lunch. As humans, we are innately wired with the capacity to compare and so comparing ourselves to others can be automatic and unconscious. But why does a useful cognitive skill sometimes become toxic? And how can we manage those all too familiar instances of ‘compare and despair’?
Use your skill of comparison to identify your unmet needs
Sometimes the emotions we feel when we compare ourselves to others (e.g., sadness, resentment, and anger) can provide information on the things that we crave in our own lives.
And so, comparison can be a useful tool in helping us to identify things we’d like to experience or improve. For example, feeling resentful when seeing people on holiday may be telling us that we are craving a sense of freedom and relaxation. When we feel that pang of sadness and insecurity in response to the achievements of others, it may indicate that we are neglecting a passion or pursuit of our own.
Try thinking about comparison as providing valuable insight into your own needs and then consider taking action to meet them. This moves the focus from others to ourselves, and can be empowering rather than defeating.
Tip: Take note of the feelings you experience when you start to compare yourself to others and what they might be telling you about your needs.
Journal prompt: What are the things/experiences that bring me joy and how can I make more space for this in my life?
Never has information about other people’s lives been so accessible to us. Our pool of influence has grown tremendously, from a small circle of family, friends, and associates to billions of strangers on all corners of the earth. The impact of this on our perception of ourselves and others cannot be overstated. Social media apps like Instagram are filled to the brim with polished, glamorous, and idealistic lifestyles that can often leave us feeling dissatisfied with our own.
In reality, we know that no one’s life is completely rosy all the time, including ours. But as much as we are told not to compare our behind the scenes with someone’s highlight reel, it can be difficult. It’s worth reminding though that when we compare ourselves to others we can lose focus and blind ourselves to the opportunities, personal qualities, and value within our own lives. The reality is that everyone’s circumstances are different. So, try to focus on what’s been going well for you lately and what you are proud of so that you can have a realistic appraisal of your own life and that of others.
Tip: Try conscious consumption of social media by following accounts and content that makes you feel empowered rather than insecure.
Journal prompt: What has been going well for me lately? What makes me feel proud?
Consider the influence of childhood experiences on your self-perception
Self-perception is how you view yourself and can be one of the biggest drivers of compare and despair activity. In my experience, feelings of inadequacy are pervasive. We all experience them at some point in our lives but for some people the feeling is overwhelming and ever-present. Perhaps you can’t shake the feeling that you’re not good enough or not living up to some expectations. If this is you, it can help to uncover where this belief might stem from in order to evaluate how it might be harming you.
Perhaps you had controlling or critical parents in childhood, maybe you were compared to other children or family members, such as siblings and cousins. All of this can leave us feeling that we were not enough and that we always have to strive to be more. Carl Rogers, the psychologist and founder of person-centred therapy, called this ‘conditions of worth’ – external expectations placed on us by others that we use to measure our value and self-worth.
Therapy can help you to understand the impact of early experiences on your self-perception and how these might be contributing to the constant self-comparison. As a psychodynamic counsellor, I work with clients to uncover messages they received about themselves and their worth in childhood and explore how these may be harming them in adulthood. Understanding this is key to releasing yourself from the misery of comparison, by providing your adult self the unconditional love you needed as a child.
Tip: Connect and spend time with people who make you feel appreciated and valued for who you are.
Journal prompt: What challenges have I faced that have taught me something valuable or given me skills and experiences that I now use in ways that make me proud?