Here's an art form which is unique to human beings: the art of comparison. In fact, it's so prevalent that it has its own heading under the list of unhelpful thinking styles in cognitive behavioural therapy: Compare and Despair.
The danger of Compare and Despair thinking is pervasive. Like a weed, it can quickly become rooted, and a feature which any one of us can do without. Compare and Despair thinking can contribute to anxiety, depression, shame, envy, leading to self criticism, lack of self worth and it rapidly undermines any confidence.
In the evolutionary context of survival, having a cognitive ability to compare our abilities with others', or to suss out whether or not we might be acceptable to another social group, makes a lot of sense, especially if the results of our decision are bound up with live or die scenarios. However, in the present day, this hangover from the past can tip from helpful to survival to unhelpful to daily life. This inherited tendency to judge ourselves in comparison to others would definitely have helped us to succeed in competing for resources such as food or shelter, but in our everyday lives, this ability can cause more problems than it solves. First of all, and perhaps most important, is to recognise that you are not to blame if you have a tendency to think this way - it's how your brain was made.
When we look around us in this information-saturated age, there are plenty of opportunities for us to compare ourselves to others. We might compare looks, status, partners, children intelligence, individual character traits (how funny or articulate someone else is), possessions, emotions... in fact, it's humanly possible to compare just about anything that something else has with what you have.
How to overcome comparisons
No-one would say it is easy to overcome... as with any thinking style, this can be ingrained. Awareness and catching ourselves in the act of comparing and despairing is our first step. You could begin to write down or capture these thoughts before deciding how you treat them.
Unhelpfully, comparing ourselves to others can can go hand in hand with the unhelpful thinking style of filtering, or, tending to paying attention to what fits our worst fears about ourselves... For example, if we believe we are boring then we have a radar seeking out information to confirm this. This is what Christine Padesky calls 'prejudice against the self' - our brains are wired this way too. Just another of the faults our human brain has to contend with! This means that we pay more attention to what we see as our own weaknesses, than paying attention to everything else about us, and compare and rate ourselves negatively.
Take a more balanced view
If we know that we do have a knack of disqualifying the positives about ourselves, or discounting any praise received, we can choose to make a conscious, yet uncomfortable, attempt to let it in! It is okay (though admittedly not very British!) to take on board compliments and acknowledge the positives about yourself, but take them on board you must. It's just that you may have become accomplished at focusing on the ways in which you think you don't make the grade. You can begin to consider a more balanced view about yourself.
Learn to let go of unhelpful thoughts
It's very likely that in my attempt to persuade you to think about some of your positive qualities, your mind is already coming up with excuses that some of those good things that you have thought of 'don't count', 'they only said that to be kind', 'they didn't mean it', 'they wanted something'... Notice that this your mind still trying to defend its own prejudice against itself. These are simply thoughts, and not facts. You can learn to let these go. A simple mindfulness practice can help to learn to just watch you thoughts without getting caught up in them. Try this Beginners Mindfulness Practice. With practice, mindfulness can help you to turn your attention to what is helpful for you.
Build self compassion
Perhaps a better answer yet is to learn to be kind and compassionate to yourself. Yes, there may be things that others have that you would like to have, or you would like to be, but none of these are indicators of your worth as a human being. You are uniquely valuable as you are. What they have and you don't is no indicator of your worth.
There is a Zen saying that, “A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.” If we learn to accept ourselves for who we are, each of us our own unique, imperfect (yes, because everyone is!) and wonderful version of a human being, and if we can learn to treat ourselves with self compassion... then maybe just then, we can be like the flower, allowing our own selves to shine regardless of how we think we stand in relation to others.
If you would like to find out more about other unhelpful thinking styles, please take a wander through the following articles:
Ali Binns works as a CBT therapist in Bath. She helps clients to overcome their problems using a range of cognitive behavioural strategies.