6 Ways to Break the Comparison Cycle

A woman smiles at her reflection.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Constantly measuring our lives against other people’s can wreak havoc on our well-being. We might see a friend get promoted and feel stuck in the same job we loved yesterday. Or learn that a sibling is having their second child while we’re still trying to find The One. If we’re always weighing how we stack up against someone else, we can get trapped in a cycle of comparison. We’re left feeling like we’re never doing enough. Or worse, like we’re innately not enough as a human being.

These feelings are natural. Research shows that our brains are wired to gauge our progress against that of our peers. It’s one way we learn from each other. It can help us figure out how we fit into society.

But when taken to extremes, comparing ourselves to others can also cause problems. It can distract us from our own values and progress. And it can tank our self-worth. “We judge our own messy lives against other people’s highlight reels,” says Oldham. “Truth is, no one has it all figured out.”

Stepping off this hamster wheel takes practice. But it’s possible. And we’ll show you how.

Let’s start by exploring how 3 concepts can improve our well-being:

  • Self-love
  • Self-acceptance
  • Self-compassion

Then we’ll dig into a few ways each one can help us create our own benchmarks instead of looking to others.

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Embrace self-love

Self-love is a key building block for healthy self-esteem. It asks us to celebrate our unique strengths and talents. It also invites us to put ourselves first.

“Loving who we are boosts our confidence,” says Oldham. “We’re less likely to expend the mental or emotional energy that comes with the comparison game.”

A couple of ways you can spark more self-love:

  • Track your wins. It can be hard for our brains to focus on the positive. To help jog your memory, keep a list handy. (AbleTo’s Freewrite Journal is one place you can do that.) Write down the times you’ve succeeded. Or list what you like about yourself. Nothing is too small to add, says Oldham.
  • Hype yourself up. Affirmations and mantras can be powerful tools for building self-esteem. They can help shift our mindset. You might tell yourself, “I am enough just as I am.” The key is to make it personal and aligned with your values.

Find self-acceptance

Comparison loves to latch onto self-doubt. And it’s often prompted by seeing other people reach certain life moments we’ve come to think of as milestones. Maybe it’s having a baby. Or taking a big trip. Or retiring from full-time work.

Whatever the external goalpost, we feel like we should be doing the same. And if we haven’t? Well, we feel like we don’t measure up.

Oldham suggests rethinking how we look at weaknesses in the first place. Too often, we view them as a checklist of things we need to change. That can prompt us to see ourselves as continual DIY projects.

“It’s not good for anyone’s self-esteem to have a laundry list of things that need to be improved,” she explains. Instead, we can accept that we’re all good at different things. And having weaknesses doesn’t mean we’re lacking in some way.

Two methods for valuing ourselves just as we are:

  • Practice mindfulness. We might look outward because we have a hard time sitting with our thoughts or emotions. A mindfulness practice can help us learn how to quiet our inner critic. We can learn to notice unhelpful beliefs or tough feelings without judging them (or ourselves). Bringing meditation into this practice can help fine-tune your awareness. Unsure where or how to start? Check out AbleTo’s library of guided options.
  • Focus on your own goals. The next time you find yourself fixating on someone else, get curious. What caught your attention? How might it apply to your own life? For example, you might feel a pang when you see a friend post a photo of their finished painting. But when you stop to think about it, you realize you don’t actually want to paint. You just miss feeling creative. That could prompt you to pick up your old guitar. Or sign up for a dance class. It’s about tapping into what feels good for you. Setting SMART goals is one way to start. AbleTo’s SMART Goals journal can help can help.

Nurture self-compassion

Self-compassion trades judgment for empathy. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we can give ourselves grace. It also means we forgive ourselves when we make a mistake. And if something doesn’t go our way? We encourage ourselves, rather than blame.

Envy can be another trigger for comparison. We might see someone with a certain quality we admire and wonder why we can’t emulate it. But everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and that’s what makes the world work. “If everyone was a doctor, we wouldn’t have houses to live in,” says Oldham. “And drilling down even more, if every doctor was a heart surgeon, who would fix broken bones?”

Here are 2 ways to treat yourself more tenderly:

  • Adopt a growth mindset. Want to tackle a challenge? Or learn something new? Remind yourself that progress takes time. And that there’s value in effort. If you notice negative self-talk creeping in, add the word “yet.” So: “I can’t run 5 miles straight” turns into “I can’t run 5 miles straight yet.” Doing this helps us lean into what’s possible. (Need help catching and checking these thoughts? AbleTo’s 3Cs Guided Journal acts as a guide.)
  • Check your social media habits. Our feeds give us access to tons of people we might never have come across in real life. The great thing is that it can help us find community. But it can also lead us to compare ourselves more than ever if we’re not intentional. It can also give us the notion that we should be good at everything, even if it’s something that doesn’t actually matter to us personally. If your feed is causing you heartache, use your phone’s time limit settings to curb your scrolling. At the same time, take stock of who you’re following. If there’s a friend or influencer whose posts are making you feel crummy, it might be time to unfollow.

Taming the trap

With a bit of effort and patience, we can take steps to accept and love ourselves more fully. And we can celebrate ourselves just as we are.

Need help putting these tips into practice?

You may be eligible for virtual therapy, coaching, or on-demand self care from AbleTo. Each program is designed by clinicians and grounded in science. Sign up today and get the support you deserve.

By Sarah Bruning

Sarah Bruning has been a journalist and content strategist for more than 15 years. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Women’s Health, Travel + Leisure, and Cosmopolitan.

Clinically reviewed by Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo.

Photo by yanjf/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.

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