Caught up in comparisons

Maddie Harris, Nora Callahan, Executive Lifestyle Editor, Lifestyle Editor

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Comparing her life to others’ as she scrolled through her Instagram feed was a common occurrence for sophomore Caroline Sullivan. Feeling frustrated, she decided to break away from her typical posting habits by opening up about her true feelings on her Instagram account. She captioned a post, “Social media makes me mad. I’m very sick of trying to make it seem like my life is perfect by living up to these standards.

“Comparison is [hurting] our generation and it needs to stop.”

Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said in a phone interview that in today’s digital age, teenagers interact with many other people regularly, making it easier to find someone who is better than oneself in almost every dimension, or aspect, of one’s abilities and personality.

“We [make comparisons] without thinking about, ‘Is this dimension truly important?’ … [or], ‘Is that really relevant for the quality of my life?’” Leary said.

Sullivan said that while comparisons can lead to many problems, they can also be beneficial by motivating her to grow and mature.

According to Leary, comparisons can have a positive impact when made across a limited amount of people if one can set attainable goals based on them, but otherwise, it is vital that people decrease these types of unhealthy comparisons. 

Leah Seligman, associate at Affiliate in Counseling, said in a phone interview that it is difficult to decrease comparisons without having a core belief of being good enough.

“[A person with this core belief knows that] someone else having a quality that you don’t have doesn’t make you less valuable,” Seligman said.

According to Sullivan, she has grown to understand there is no reason for her to make comparisons about what she cannot control. In her experience, recognizing the problem of comparing herself when there were potentially harmful effects made a big difference. She started to focus more on what she enjoyed instead of what “everyone else” was doing, making small changes to improve her day. 

“I would go through my Instagram, and people who I didn’t know or who I was just following because I … [wanted] to look like them, I would just unfollow them,” said Sullivan. “Like, what’s the point? I’m literally just following them so I can make myself feel bad.”

In order to decrease the negative effects of comparisons, Leary said one must be able to differentiate between which comparisons are helpful and which are harmful.

“Just because you’re low in some dimensions doesn’t mean that you necessarily even want to work on those dimensions,” said Leary. “We all have weaknesses, [so] … just go on and do something in which you [can improve in and] do have value and strength [in].”

Seligman said there is no simple way to eliminate comparisons.

“I’d write a book if there was [a way],” said Seligman. “But this is a constant battle with teenagers having low self-esteem or feeling bad about themselves.”

There are ways to decrease comparisons, but the methods vary from person to person, according to Seligman.

“If you’re feeling bad about yourself and spending a lot of time comparing yourself to other people negatively, and it’s making you feel bad, talk to somebody, because we can give you techniques and tricks and ways to help you deal with that,” Seligman said.