Escaping The Compare And Despair Trap
Have you ever found yourself scrolling through social media, comparing your life to the seemingly perfect lives of others? Or maybe you’ve compared your achievements, relationships, or appearance to those of your peers, feeling like you don’t measure up? You’re not alone.
The issue that I see for most accountants when it comes to comparing ourselves to others is that it affects so many areas of our lives, not just our work. It can affect our relationships, self-confidence, ability to set and achieve goals, and much more.
If you’re not familiar with the term “compare and despair”, it’s when we constantly measure ourselves against others, and it often leads to a downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. We make these comparisons, and suddenly we feel inadequate and less capable than before.
But before you beat yourself up for your tendency to compare yourself to others, let me help you out—it’s completely natural. Our brains are wired from a young age for comparison, so it’s not our fault. It’s just part of being human.
The psychology of comparison
In order to survive, the human brain has a tribe mentality and looks for ways to understand our relationship with the rest of the tribe and how we fit in. Our lower primitive brain equates rejection with death. Therefore, not being accepted or valuable is quite threatening.
As we learned about survival of the fittest in school, our brain’s motivation for survival has been to measure us against others, build connections that keep us safe, and to be on the lookout for any threats. We’re not just looking for differences in people and situations, we are also hardwired to see if those differences are better or worse.
Here’s the interesting part: even though we know that comparing ourselves to others can make us feel inadequate and insecure, we still find ourselves doing it. Whether it’s mindlessly scrolling through social media, observing the success of our peers, or even comparing ourselves to an unrealistic version of who we think we should be, we can’t seem to shake off this behavior.
So why do we continue to compare ourselves to others, even though we know it can be harmful? Because comparison is a natural and necessary part of our survival and adaptation.
Throughout human evolution, comparison has helped us to assess our environment, understand social dynamics, and make decisions about how to behave. It’s no wonder, then, that we continue to engage in this behavior today.
The negative effects of social comparison
However, the problem is that our brains are not well-suited for the kind of comparison that we do today. In the past, comparison was limited to our immediate environment and social group.
But today, we have access to a global network of information and social comparison. Social media, in particular, has created a world where we are constantly bombarded with images and information about other people’s lives, accomplishments, and successes. And our brains simply aren’t equipped to handle this level of comparison.
One reason why social comparison can be so damaging is that our brains naturally tend to focus on the negative. This is a phenomenon known as negativity bias.
Essentially, our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative information than positive information. This is why we tend to dwell on criticism or failure, even when there are many positive aspects to a situation.
The issue is that when we engage in social comparison, we are more likely to focus on the ways in which we fall short of others, rather than our own strengths and successes. Another reason why social comparison can be harmful is that it activates the same neural pathways as physical pain.
In a study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, participants were asked to rate their level of social exclusion while undergoing an MRI. The researchers found that the brain regions that were activated during social exclusion were the same as those activated during physical pain, suggesting that social exclusion, or the feeling of not measuring up to others, can be as painful as physical injury.
In addition, social comparison can lead to feelings of envy, jealousy, and resentment. These can be particularly damaging because they can erode our relationships with others, and can also lead to feelings of shame and guilt.
When we compare ourselves to others in a negative way, we are essentially saying that we are not good enough as we are; a difficult message to shake. So, given all of these negative effects, why do we continue to compare ourselves to others, besides the fact that our brains are hard-wired for it?
Healthy versus unhealthy comparison
Well, besides the fact that our brains are hard-wired for comparison, another reason we continue is that comparison can also have positive effects. Think about it – it can motivate us to improve ourselves, to strive for greater success, to achieve our goals, and in some cases, comparison can be a useful tool for self-evaluation and growth.
The issue is that it’s important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy comparisons. Healthy comparison involves looking at others as a source of inspiration and motivation, rather than as a measure of our own self-worth.
Healthy comparison is looking at someone else’s achievements as an example of what’s possible. It can give us a source of inspiration.
Healthy comparison involves recognizing that each person’s journey is unique, and that we all have our own strengths and weaknesses.
On the other hand, unhealthy comparison involves using others as a yardstick for our own success. Sometimes it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and a lack of drive or motivation.
There have been numerous studies done to understand how our inclination towards comparison affects our happiness and contentment. Some interesting studies of Olympic medal winners were done to compare the happiness level of each winner.
At first glance, you would think that the Gold winner would be the happiest, the Silver winner the second happiest, and the Bronze winner would be the least happy. But that’s not what these studies discovered.
Because of the tendency to compare and despair, the Silver winner was looking at the one person, the Gold winner, to compare themselves to and thinking “I was so close!”, which then created the feeling of unworthiness. However, the Bronze winner was looking at all the people they needed to beat to be on the podium, thinking, “This is amazing!” and actually feeling happier than the Silver winner.
The truth is that our brain is constantly looking to see who we may be in competition with and determining who is “winning”. This means that we believe we need to accumulate validation and gold stars in order to feel good about ourselves.
When we add our brain’s natural tendency to compare, as well as being taught at an early age that competition is good, it’s no wonder we compare and despair. We’re constantly scanning to see if we measure up and looking for those measurements to determine if we should feel better or worse about ourselves.
Unfortunately, when the cycle of compare and despair becomes a habit, we are not only measuring our self-worth against others, we can also begin doubting decisions or getting stuck in confusion. If we have a habit of looking to the past, comparing it to the present, and then feeling bad about a decision, we are also strengthening the compare and despair cycle.
When we haven’t worked on understanding and managing our brain, we will mistakenly believe we need to be different, or have a different situation, in order to feel happy, but that’s not true. The only way to get out of the cycle of compare and despair and feel better is to change the way we are thinking.
Becoming a Smarter Accountant
In my book “The Smarter Accountant” I shared the story of Kendra. Kendra decided to study accounting a little later than most. After high school, she decided to join the military and, once she finished serving her time, she chose to go back to school for an accounting degree.
Not only was she older than most of the students in her class, she was also balancing school, a part-time job, being a wife, and being a mom to her young daughter. Although she had a lot on her plate, she completed her undergraduate accounting degree, was finishing up her Master’s, was planning on taking the CPA exam, and was at the point where she was going to be interviewing for an accounting position.
The issue that Kendra was dealing with was a lack of confidence and caring too much about what others thought of her. Unfortunately, this was holding her back from putting herself out there.
Whether it was simply believing that what she had to share in a conversation was valuable, or having the confidence to apply for positions that she was qualified for, she had a hard time not comparing herself to others and then feeling despair.
Her dream was to have the confidence to not care what other people think, not compare herself to others, and be able to own her unique gifts and talents. She was intelligent, loved learning, was articulate, and wanted to eventually help a company grow as their controller, but it was as if there was a wall of self-doubt that kept being put in her path.
She was so used to being in the background, not taking charge, and letting others make decisions for her that she believed she wasn’t as capable as the other students she went to school with. She constantly compared herself to others and always came up short in her mind.
She knew she was smart, having one of the highest GPAs in her graduating class, but she just didn’t have the level of self-confidence that she would like. She tried ignoring her feelings of self-doubt but then someone would do or say something and she’d fall right back into her pattern of compare and despair.
What Kendra needed to learn is how to shine a light on her unhelpful thoughts causing the compare and despair cycle and choose instead to direct her brain more intentionally. She needed to understand that, if the feeling of self-doubt is caused by her thoughts, then the feeling of self-confidence can be as well.
For most accountants, this can be a big wake-up call—our level of knowledge, the school we graduated from, the experience we do or don’t have, and the number of letters after our last name are just neutral circumstances—they don’t mean anything until our brain makes them mean something.
So, if comparison has been an issue for you, it’s not your fault because you’ve never been taught how to manage your brain. A Smarter Accountant understands how to get unstuck from the trap of comparing themselves to others.
They know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how to stop the compare and despair cycle. Just like so many of my coaching clients who dealt with the compare and despair trap, once they learned a simple process for managing their brains, they were able to show up in ways that weren’t possible before becoming a Smarter Accountant.
What you can do
So, if you find yourself caught in the compare and despair trap, there are steps you can take to break free and become a Smarter Accountant:
Awareness – Recognize when you’re falling into the comparison trap. Pay attention to the negative emotions that arise when you compare yourself to others. By becoming aware of this pattern, you can start taking control of your thoughts and reactions.
Challenge your thoughts – Question the validity of your comparisons. Are you seeing the complete picture, or are you just focusing on the highlight reels of others? Remind yourself that everyone has their own unique journey, and you’re on your own path too.
Focus on your strengths – Shift your attention to your own accomplishments, skills, and strengths. Celebrate your progress and recognize your unique contributions. Instead of dwelling on what you lack, cultivate self-appreciation and self-compassion.
Limit social media exposure – Recognize that social media often showcases curated and idealized versions of people’s lives. Take breaks from social media or curate your feed to include more positive and uplifting content. Remember, comparison on social media is not an accurate reflection of reality.
Set realistic goals – Define your own goals based on your personal values and aspirations. Instead of comparing yourself to others, focus on continuous self-improvement and growth. Embrace the journey and progress at your own pace.
Practice gratitude – Cultivate a sense of gratitude for what you have and the progress you’ve made. Regularly reflect on the positive aspects of your life and career. Gratitude can help shift your focus away from comparison and bring more contentment and fulfillment.
Seek support and coaching –: Consider seeking guidance from a coach or a mentor who can help you navigate the challenges of comparison and build resilience. They can provide valuable insights, strategies, and support as you work toward overcoming the compare and despair trap.
Remember, becoming a Smarter Accountant means freeing yourself from the negative effects of comparison and embracing your unique talents and journey. By understanding the neuroscience behind comparison and taking proactive steps, you can break free from the trap and create a fulfilling and confident professional life.
If you’re tired of the compare and despair trap, let’s talk. Schedule a quick, free mini-coaching session with me and I’ll help you understand what to do to stop the cycle.
While comparison might be normal, it’s not always helpful. I can teach you a simple formula for how to break the cycle and overcome the comparison paradox.
Just go to www.thesmarteraccountant.com/calendar and book a free session with me.
Also, I would sincerely appreciate it if you could get the word out to other accountants about this podcast. The more accountants find out about it, the more we can begin to change the narrative in the accounting profession.
As I share each week, the truth is that you’re already smart, but this podcast will show you how to be smarter.