In episode 331, I received a question from an individual who continually compares themselves to others at the detriment of their own wellbeing. In this post, I offer my thoughts for those who struggle with self-esteem and share how you can take steps to prevent these harmful comparisons.
Hello Dr. Duff, I have always been a keen observer of people. I find their body language, the way they interact with others, communication styles, and how they handle certain scenarios very interesting. But this quality can often trigger my anxiety and depression because I start to compare myself to them. I tell myself I am not as successful, or intelligent, happy, pretty, and so on. Soon enough my brain is spinning with self doubt, and I’m stuck in a dark hole. Do you have any advice on how to stop comparing myself to others? (I avoid most social media but I need a couple platforms to promote my business.) Most recently I became anxious and then later depressed at a wedding, but it can happen anywhere that there’s, well…people. Besides moving to Nof**kingpeopleland in Alaska and talking to only animals, what else can I do? PS Thanks for how much time and brain energy you’ve put into so many people you’ve never even met. That’s just super f**king awesome. You should be multiplied. Also you get a lot of questions and may not get to mine. I get this. I did a search on “comparing to others” in your podcasts, but nothing has really hit the nail on the head for my situation. Please tell me if I’ve missed something. Thanks!
First off – do not multiply me. That would be a disaster. One of me is quite enough. Second, Thank you for your question.
What you are writing about is super common. When working people with social anxiety or social phobia, I used to have the temptation to ask them if they are judging people as harshly as they think other people are judging them. But I learned a long time ago that the answer is often yes. Not in a mean sort of way, but the social sensitivity and hyper-focus on minute cues and behaviors is often a central part of social anxiety. You think that everyone else also notices as much and overinterprets as much as you do, which makes you feel constantly on stage. For you, you are also describing depression, so it’s not only that you are anxious about being observed by other people, but you are thinking more broadly and making up stories about the lives of other people, what they have that you don’t etc. and feeling horrible about your own self because you don’t feel like you stack up to that.
It seems like you are already noticing that avoidance is not really the answer here. You mentioned that you have already gone off a lot of social media and that the only remaining choice seems to be to move to nof**kingpeopleland. I’ve talked about this many times, but avoidance is not the answer with anxiety. That typically only makes anxiety more pronounced. I’m not sure to what extent you might be avoiding public and social situations already, but that’s something to consider. One of the things that you could definitely do is paradoxically spend a lot MORE time in public and in group settings where you have to contend with those feelings of anxiety. The reason for this is basically to prove yourself wrong. You are inevitably going to have some irrational assumptions about other people, their lives, and how they are perceiving you. Those are what they are. You can choose to try to correct yourself or not.
The other thing, though, that is a little more problematic is the belief that you can’t handle their perception of you or that they are going to have a significant impact on you in some way. The more time you spend out amongst people, the more you will prove to yourself that they probably aren’t having those sorts of opinions about you, and even if they did, their own lives and thoughts have very little bearing on your own. Also, I know it’s unpleasant to feel anxious or depressed, but remember that those feeling in and of themselves aren’t dangerous. You are allowed to feel those ways. Sometimes accepting that those feelings happen often is one of the first steps toward making them happen less often.
I think a lot of what might help you comes down to what you have already been doing. If you are already challenging your thoughts frequently using something like a thought log, then maybe you are actually giving those thoughts and the mental game too much energy. If you are avoiding a lot, maybe you need to push to be more exposed. If you are letting your mind spin and not doing anything about it, then maybe it is time to start writing things down, paying attention to your cognitive distortions, using a thought log to investigate the assumptions that are making you feel so poorly etc. Developing your own sense of self and self-confidence is also helpful as a protective factor. You could make a point to focus on things like gratitude and things that you are proud of yourself for. I think that people write off gratitude tracking and things like that too quickly. I find that when you first start tracking, it can be tough, which is basically the point. You need to train yourself to pay attention to the things that you appreciate about the world and yourself. You may also find that focusing on incompatible emotions can help to reduce the impact of the negative emotions that you are experiencing.
Gratitude is one version of that which I just mentioned. Another one that you can focus on is empathy. Rather than focusing on the things you notice about others that make you envious, try to focus on being empathetic. This can be compassionate for what they may be going through or enthusiastic and happy for what they have. You are also allowed to take note of what you would like to work on without feeling guilty about it. We all have areas of improvement and if there is a way to translate your observations into motivation, that can be a great source of personal progress. Lastly, there is treatment. CBT and ACT are very effective ways to treat social anxiety and depression. Medication is also effective.