As the old maxim says 'comparison is the thief of joy', in this insta-obsessed age the compulsion to rank ourselves against friends and strangers on social media is becoming an epidemic and Sophie White needs help
Sometime before Christmas I found myself in a scroll hole over another woman's life on Instagram. She was doing incredible work and, rightly, being lauded for it. She had a lovely new jacket, a light-filled extension, perfect skin. As she began talking about going on a silent retreat, I noticed the frowning I was doing was actually starting to give me a headache. I caught myself glaring at the phone and then I had to laugh. I was actually jealous of this woman going on a silent retreat? Something that actually sounds like my worst nightmare. I'd obviously stumbled into a scroll hole of life comparison.
Comparing myself to others is something that has intensified massively in the two years since I joined Instagram. I sometimes think back to that simpler time before I was on social media when I simply didn't know how well everyone else was doing or how fab their holidays, houses and clothes were.
Now, obviously I am a grown woman, I know when I'm looking at my phone, I'm looking at a "best of" of their "best lives" but even this knowledge doesn't cure our impulse to rank ourselves against our peers. And it doesn't stop the unpleasant creep of comparison, that nefarious thief of all joy.
We don't need to to look to our neighbours or adverts to see the lives we want to live, there's a live stream available in our pockets.
Social comparison disorder is a documented phenomenon though understanding this epidemic is in its early stages. The theories of social comparison were first investigated in the 1950s by psychologist Leon Festinger. He argued that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations. The theory explains how individuals "evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty in these domains, and learn how to define the self".
It is interesting that the theory of social comparison should emerge in an era that gave rise to a new kind of conspicuous consumption and status seeking after the lean war years. Advertising narratives were also shifting and the American Dream was becoming a goal for hard working families.
More than sixty years on we don't need to to look to our neighbours or adverts to see the lives we want to live, there's a live stream available in our pockets. A 2006 study explored the dark side of comparison syndrome and that was pre the kind of saturation we're seeing now with social media dominating our waking hours.
Comparison devouring a generation
Ironically I found the cure for my chronic social comparison on Instagram. Perspective and help came in the form of Lucy Sheridan who is the world's first Comparison Coach and the owner of an exceptional head of hair ("better than mine," I thought bitterly when I first stumbled across her community on Instagram – remember I was still deep in comparison mode!).
In an age where everyone is preaching wellness and displaying their emotional healing like an accolade or accessory. Sheridan is funny and frank about her own struggles with comparison.
Sheridan launched her business five years ago in what has to be one of the most impressive displays of prescience I've come across. While she describes her area of focus as "a niche within a niche", comparison is now arguably devouring a generation.
Sheridan is bubbly and pragmatic which instantly quietened any reservations I may have been feeling about something verging on life coaching or self-help. She is also self-deprecating and honest.
It was this honesty that initially led her to identify the need for discussion around the topic.
The other side of comparison triggers Something that you might find hard to believe is that, at exactly this very moment in time, YOU are somebody’s comparison trigger. Yes, even if you look like you’ve been dug up, even if you’ve had a bad day today and even if you are feeling like you definitely don’t have your shit together. Guaranteed it’s occurring right now because comparison doesn’t care. ???????? It might be a long held thing since they knew you from school or it might be they only follow you on the internet... but you can trigger other people’s comparison as much as you can be triggered too. So, be gentle with yourself and our fellow humans as we are each fighting to find our way through the fog that comparing always brings with it. None of us is perfect and yet so many of us are affected. (And I know that you might not believe me and I’ve caught you giving me an eye roll ? but I’m telling you it’s TRUE!) ???????? I’ve had some really awks experiences with this from receiving long DM’s listing the ways I made someone feel inferior, someone arranged to FaceTime me and then dropping it into the conversation that they couldn’t my bear to hear my news and I’ve also had some plain bitchy comments. Have you ever been on the sharp end of someone’s comparison outburst? Has it been spoken or have you been able to simply sense it from someone? Love Lucy xxx
"I found that whenever I spoke about comparison or shared a cringy story for the purpose of helping other people feel not so cringy themselves! I’d notice there was a spike of people wanting to read the blog or even with mates in the pub if it came up, the conversation would go on and on and people really wanted to share on this topic."
Sheridan's appeal lies in the fact that she is, in many ways, an anti-guru. In an age where everyone is preaching wellness and displaying their emotional healing like an accolade or accessory. Sheridan is funny and frank about her own struggles with comparison.
I’d developed anxiety in my work and was really struggling. I felt totally disconnected from myself.
"Comparison, for me, will always be one of my biggest teachers," says Sheridan. "I call it the lifetime assignment! I use a hashtag called 'Comparison Free' and that is always my aim, if I can get within touching distance of that as often as possible, more days than not, then that is a really good place for me to be. As opposed to when I was always in comparison and felt like I could never focus on myself and get behind my own goals. So I do still experience comparison, the same triggers will come up again and again. It’s like when you think you’ve got a mark out of the carpet and then goddammit! It’s there again."
I’ve posted these words before and yet you won’t find me apologising for revisiting them today... It’s January and the tendency to compare ourselves to others is experiencing a big spike But don’t let your evil twin comparison voice that whispers in your ear EVER let you feel you are not enough. Why? 'Cool' is a made up thing. 'Popular' is a made up thing. 'On trend' is a made up thing. 'In-with-the-in-crowd' is a made up thing. What's 'going viral' is a made up thing. Numbers on social media denoting value or influence is a made up thing. What's the 'next big thing' on the internet is a made up thing. But you know what's REAL? You. Your dream. Your life vision. Your resourcefulness. Your abilities. Your pathway. Your story. So do what you can to connect with that real truth today - YOUR real truth. In a world where comparison is making you feel like the outsider, or the one that's behind everyone else, put two fingers on your pulse right now and tune into the real you and feel all that fog fall away. With twenty nineteen a new year is here for you and it’s ALL to play for huns! Happy champagne ? Friday you glorious human ? Love Lucy xxx
Sheridan's interest in comparison was first spurred by a very personal experience. While she had always held herself up against others, even with her colouring as a child and in the early years of her first career in advertising, it wasn't until her late 20s when she attended a school reunion that she began to understand how toxic being in that state could be. After a great night catching up with old classmates, she found her social media network expanded overnight
"It was almost like I woke up in this Las Vegas of comparison. And it was open all hours! There was always something for me to gorge on when it came to me judging someone else, which is not a nice trait anyway, yet equally feeling jealous and envious. With 30 or 40 new people in my network, I was seeing people posting 'oh, back in my favourite place again!' They were in the Maldives and I was like 'You’re 29 years old! You’ve got no business going to the Maldives!!!'" Sheridan laughs.
"Things were kind of difficult in my personal life at the time too. I’d developed anxiety in my work and was really struggling. I felt totally disconnected from myself."
"I posed the question 'if I can think and feel myself into this state, can I think and feel myself out of it?'. I started watching TedTalks and I’d find myself in the Self Help section of the bookshop which has never been my bag at all. But I was trying to get a handle on this comparison that was proving so very destructive and making me so stuck as well. And that’s the thing, I wasn’t seeing other people’s success and thinking 'okay, great! I’ll go and get mine.' I was thinking: 'Why bother? It’ll never happen for me'.
"It lead me to more advanced training. I went to life coaching seminars and did courses with exams and everything. I wanted to understand it and just get over it because the comparison never brought anything positive to the table."
That was when Sheridan decided to try going freelance. She called herself the Comparison Coach – "everything needs a name or a label!" – and set herself a limit of 90 days to see if it would gain any traction. It's easy to forget that just five years ago the wellness sphere was not the mammoth industry it is today, but Sheridan made the leap.
It was a risk that paid off. Her business and online community has grown enormously in the years since. As well as coaching individual clients she also gives talks on comparison in schools and in corporate settings.
It's not just a case of get off your phone. You’ll be back on it in 10 minutes or tomorrow.
"It’s been five years and I’m still not bored with it, I still love hearing people’s own experiences of it! I love continuing to learn more about it too because although it’s arguably a one-word conversation, the things that comparison brings up for us are so emotional. It’s impossible to not connect to people when they share their own story. Seeing people bringing their comparison down and their own self-focus up – it’s basically why I get out of bed in the morning. It’s very very rewarding, even though it’s very specialist."
Though her focus is specific, the issue of comparison is only going to become more prevalent as our connection to our devices is not likely to change any time soon. For most of us, our phones are indispensable to our jobs and provide connection and community in our social lives.
"It's not just a case of get off your phone. You’ll be back on it in 10 minutes or tomorrow. We’re missing the piece where we reason out what we see on our phones and how that’s making us feel. We’ll have to keep working it out as we go along because youngsters of today will be the first generation where we’ll see the effects of these devices."
"I also see it with parents saying get off your phone and then they go right back to their phone! I'm not judging! Nobody's perfect."
"I’ve worked with people of different ages with the talks that I do and in my experience – I can’t say definitively because I don’t have enough data – but I do think the youngsters of today are experiencing more acute conditions where mental illness can thrive."
Since speaking to Lucy and watching her brilliant videos, I've noticed myself catching the corrosive comparison much faster, often before it has time to take hold and fester. Sheridan also describes benefitting from her work herself.
"When I do feel comparison, I let myself feel it, I see it as needing to work though my system, like if you put the wrong fuel into a car."
"What I notice is that the occurrences that I do feel comparison are more spread out now and when they occur thay are quicker to deal with. The recovery time is quicker. So rather than ranking myself against others being a consistent habit, often daily, now I find it’ll crop up every couple of weeks if I’m having a wobble or every few months I’ll have a sting of it, but what it won’t do is ruin my lunch, wobble off my afternoon, and ultimately screw up my week and that is improvement and progress. I consciously work towards that."