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How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others and Find Your Career Success

How To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others And Find Your Career Success

Ever have a nagging sense that you’re falling behind in your career path? Find yourself watching others in your company or field, comparing your success to them—and then getting mad at yourself for it?

Comparing yourself to others is a common feeling I see with the women I work with as a career and executive coach. And since I offer career counseling for adults—who are way beyond the first few years of their career—they’re often deep in the trenches of their fields, surrounded by other people who are finding career success, and their dream jobs.

I know you know the feeling: It’s that “I suck” feeling that lingers with you after a particularly long scrollfest on Instagram or LinkedIn after you’ve been assaulted by all the “humble brags” and the beautiful lives of others. You find yourself thinking, “Why can’t I afford vacations in Tulum?” Or, “Why was I not selected to speak at the Aspen Institute this year?”

I call it “comparisonitis.”

Comparing yourself to others doesn’t feel good—you know you feel bad after the deep scrollfest, or a snarky comment from your mom about where she thinks you should be in your career. Like nothing you ever do will be good enough.

But comparing yourself to others can also have a worse effect—it can cause you to pursue goals that ultimately aren’t going to to result in fulfilling work. Comparing yourself to others can even cause you to miss out on your dream job and the career path and career success that is right for you.

Comparing yourself to others can drive you to make career choices that are driven by social pressure, and you can miss out on building a career path that is perfect for you and lets you meet your unique potential and feel fulfilled by work.

In order to stop comparing ourselves to others all the time, we first have to understand why we’re doing it and then we can address it. 

I’m going to show you how to understand why you are comparing yourself to others and how to stop so you can begin making the career choices and career changes that will lead to fulfilling work and career success on your own terms.

4C Career Self Assessment

5 Reasons Why We Compare Ourselves to Others

There are so many forces at play that tell us we should want a different type of career success or career path, and that cause us to compare ourselves to others.

When we can get clear on the specific “flavor” of our “comparisonitis”, it has less of a hold on us, so the first step is to understand the most common reasons for comparing ourselves to others in our careers.

Reason #1: Our Parents Pressure Us

When trying to figure out how to not compare yourself with others, examining your relationship with your parents is a first step. While our parents can be sources of wisdom for our careers, they also often have a vision of what they want for us. Sometimes it’s based on what they have—for example, a traditionally-respected profession—and they want the same for us. Sometimes it’s based on their fears: “I chose a job that didn’t pay enough and I don’t want you to have to go through that.”

Sometimes those visions, or even expectations, are clear and explicit. But sometimes the intentions they have for us are not even consciously communicated—it comes out in little comments they make about their friends’ kids or the awards or accolades they just received.

Sometimes we project expectations onto them that aren’t even there. We develop a narrative or story about what our parents want for us that’s not even based in reality. We might hear about the difficulty they faced raising our family on the salary they had and assume that they want us to be high earners. Or that their frustrations with their profession’s lack of prestige means they want us to be highly respected achievers.

This may have nothing to do with what they actually want for us. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten mad at my mom because of the “pressure” I felt from  her, and it turned out I was 100% projecting it all onto her.

But when we believe that our parents want something for us, it burrows into our brains and it’s really difficult to not feel sensitive and triggered by what others have. Our parent makes a judgemental comment about our lack of promotion, and we see a friend’s humble brag on linkedin about their recent promotion, and we start comparing ourselves.

Reason #2: We Have Friends Who Seem Farther Ahead of Us

Another place to examine when learning how to not compare yourself to others? Your friends and social network. I’ll never forget flyers I saw pasted up in a rapidly developing, upwardly mobile neighborhood I lived in in Boston in in my late twenties and early thirties: 

 

“Be the next friend to buy a home.”

I was struck by the sheer ingenious manipulation of fear and envy in the flyer. It was preying on the fears so many of us have of ‘’falling behind in life.”

It wasn’t inwards focused—achieve your goal of building wealth, equity, getting to tear down whatever walls you want, having enough space for your life goals.

No, the flyer’s core focus was not on how to reach a goal, but how to fill a hole. It was outwards-focused rather than inwards-focused. It was all about how others will think of you, instead of how you think  about yourself.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to feel different or like we’re falling behind. It’s hard when it feels like all the other parents in our community are hosting big bar and bat mitzvas for their kids with fancy catering, live entertainment, and circus tents. We worry that our kid is going to feel left behind or left out.

We are socially wired to want to belong. We want to feel like we’re part of the tribe, and that we share behaviors and values with our tribe. We worry at some fundamental evolutionary level that we won’t be accepted.

But living our best life requires us to intentionally choose what values and behaviors we actually want to live by, instead of being driven by what everyone else is doing.

Reason #3: We Haven't Met Our Childhood Expectations

One of the reasons we get stuck comparing ourself to others? The messages we got early in our training about what career success and a fulfilling career looked like. If I had followed the messages I got about what a “good” graduate of the Harvard School of Design did, I would have stayed a landscape architect instead of building an executive coaching business. I would have tried to do notable projects, research something interesting, and get fancy awards.

When I found myself drawn towards an alternative career, I felt like something was wrong with me. I felt like I was a disappointment.

In fact, I actually had to spend a whole year taking a break from calling myself a landscape architect so I could distance myself from the set of expectations that came from that role and make some space to figure out what I might want to be instead.

If I had never done that, I might not have ultimately found career coaching and executive coaching—a career that feels absolutely perfect for me and my gifts—something I am excited to get up and do when I go to work in the mornings.

Reason #4: We’re Driven by Outdated Emotional Baggage

Struggling to stop comparing yourself to others? You may be driven by some old emotional narratives from childhood or your early career years. One client of mine had a parent who had tough standards, pushed her to excel, and never gave her praise. She sought his approval most of her childhood and life, and when she got into the workplace she sought it from her bosses.

This is a specific subset of comparisonitis we call “milestonitis”

And milestonitis is a problem because it distracts us from what we really want. The reason she wasn’t progressing was that the culture of leadership at her company wasn’t a fit for her particular leadership style and gifts. Do we really want to be a senior leader in a leadership culture that isn’t a fit?

But it also makes us the victim and takes away our power. We spend our emotional energy blaming others for why they’re wrong, lamenting things like, “Why can’t they recognize me for my 30 years of experience?” Instead, we could assess the situation and determine the best path forward (perhaps at another company) to get more of the leadership opportunities that we want.

Reason #5: Social Media and Advertising Makes us Feel Sh*tty

Ever felt disgusted with yourself after wasting an hour comparing yourself to others on social media? felt the post-scroll blues after you’ve just wasted a good hour on Instagram or Facebook? Here’s what is likely going on in your brain:

Wow, others are really successful and have great lives.

I’m not where I’m supposed to be. I’m behind.

Gosh, I’m totally disgusting for not living an amazing life and instead I’m just spending my days scrolling.

It’s now common knowledge that using social media sites like Facebook can negatively impact our emotions. I love Instagram because it’s a great place for me to get ideas, inspiration, and stay connected to my field, community, and market.

But I know when I enter that space that I am being bombarded by messages designed intentionally and unintentionally to trigger that outwards-focused sense of lack. Whether it’s ads that have been market tested on thousands of people before me, or businesses who want to tap into a sense of need to offer me something, or even other people sharing milestones, lifestyle or accomplishments—when I enter this digital environment, I put myself in the path of these messages.

4 Ways to Stop Comparing Ourselves and Gain Job Satisfaction

#1: Untangle What You Want from the Social Pressure You Feel

In order to stop comparing ourselves to others, we first need to untangle why we are being triggered, and from whom the messages are coming. The first step to stop comparing ourselves to others is to go through the list of common reasons above and see which resonates.

I had a career coaching client who was frustrated and ready to switch careers because she wasn’t making enough money. She was tired of fielding judgmental comments from her parents and feeling less than all her high earning friends.

But was switching careers really the right move? In order to make sure she was making the move that would truly make her happy, she needed to get past comparing herself to others and understand what she really wanted.

When I asked the client of mine the reasons she wanted a salary bump, here’s what she told me.

  • My friends can’t believe I’m earning this little = We Have Friends Who Seem Farther Ahead of Us
  • I don’t get to go on the same kinds of vacations that my friends do = We Have Friends Who Seem Farther Ahead of Us
  • My parents think I should be earning more = Our Parents Pressure Us
  • I thought I would be earning more by now = We Haven’t Met Our Childhood Expectations

Once we knew where the messages were coming from, it was easier to see the pressures behind comparing herself to others with more distance.

Now if you’re an overthinker like many of my clients, you may think you need to know exactly (with a PhD level of precision) every single social force that is driving our feeling of not enough. You don’t! Quickly scan the reasons above and see what resonates. Even asking the question, “What social forces are behind this?” will help you get a little more distance.

#2: Develop a More Neutral Narrative About Your Situation

There was a lot of shame, blame, and despair wrapped up in my client’s feelings about her salary and feeling like she was falling behind.

She was telling herself things like, “I chose foolishly. I shouldn’t have chosen such a low-paying profession.”

But shame and blame destroys our ability see clearly what our options are, or get clear on what we really want. 

I coached this career coaching client to get to a more neutral place in her thinking. Instead of, “I’m such a fool for ending up with this salary,” we went to a neutral place: “I chose a profession that the market doesn’t value as highly as it values others, and there are benefits and drawbacks to it.”

When you can get to a more neutral place, you can make better, more rational decisions. In fact, there are moments in your career when it may be strategic to take a pay cut temporarily in order to put yourself on a path to greater earnings. Feeling emotionally charged about your salary may prevent you from making the best long-term choice for you.

#3: Get Clear on Your Idea of Career Success Instead of Someone Else's

Once you’ve gotten clear on how other people are influencing your thinking to compare yourself to others, and gotten to a more neutral, less “shame and blame” place, you can start getting clear on what you—underneath it all—really want in terms of career change, career path, or career success.

The woman I coached who wanted a higher salary? We looked at all the reasons she wanted a higher salary and then pulled out the ones that were about other people’s opinions. Here’s what was left: 

  • She lives in an expensive, very urban and enlivening city that she loves and wants to stay in.
  • She wants to be able to send her kids to private school.

  • She wants to be able to take vacations yearly that feel more abundant than she’s currently able to.

We were able to see that she did want a higher salary—but to tie it to specific desires she has so we could be much clearer on the salary level that is really right for her.

Her salary goal came from the inside instead of the outside—and the pressure of comparing herself to others.

I have my executive coaching clients create a full Career Plan that integrates all of their career desires—their growth goals, their salary and lifestyle goals, and their goals for career fulfillment. With this “north star” to guide them, it’s easier to avoid the distractions of comparisonitis.

Exercise: Observe Yourself and Identify Fulfilling Work for You

If you’re facing a potential career change, or struggling to unearth what fulfilling work would really look like for you because of all the outside pressure to compare yourself to others, a really good place to start is to take a few days—including both weekdays and weekends—and jot down whenever you feel fully absorbed in what you’re doing, joyful, or fully alive.

The moments that light you up—the times you lose yourself in the moment—are clues to your dream job. They are clues to the experiences you want more of from your inner core. And once you know what they are, you can look at ways to make more of them.

There are so many changes you can make to your career when your career is unfulfilling—and not all of  them are drastic.

Exercise: Experiment with Wanting the Opposite Definition of Career Success

If you’re struggling to know where these messages are coming from or what you really want, it also is incredibly enlightening to give yourself a period of time testing what it would feel like to exuberantly not want the thing you’re supposed to want. For me, it was spending a year not calling myself a landscape architect to test out how it felt to let go of the identity and find the fulfilling work I have today. I found my dream job once I was able to let go of the old expectations I was carrying around.

#4: Find a Personal Mission to Drive Your Job Satisfaction and Career Success

Once you do get clear on what will bring you job satisfaction, career success, and will align with your true desired lifestyle, you may find it is what others have. Or it may not be, which requires going against your perception of the social pressure.

If career success and fulfilling work for you does involve going against social expectations, it can be hard to maintain your assurance of what you really want when in social situations or facing pressure (like when your mom talks about all the professional accolades your neighbor’s kid is racking up).

But what you can do is to find the core mission behind what you do want. “I want to be in this behind-the-scenes role because it lights me up, even though there’s pressure to get out front and get all the accolades.”

Or, “Even though I could make more in a leadership role, I want to show my kids and my coworkers how to love and be an ace at one’s craft by continually practicing and improving it on real projects.”

When you’re clear on your personal story and what drives you, it’s a lot easier to silence your inner critic when it shows up in the form of comparisonitis.

Sharing your personal mission can help you feel more confident in going against social pressure. For example, Amber de la Motte and her husband have made the nontraditional choice to have a large family, while living bustling New York City, and she shares her experience on social media. You don’t have to post your mission on the internet—for some people, that can feel performative—but finding ways to celebrate and express your choices with pride will help you own  them.

Exercise: Mindfully Connect with Your Mission of Fulfilling Work

Finding a mission behind your choice helps you take the focus off of things like “you are you good enough,” or, “you did you do the right thing,” and puts it on something outside of you that’s bigger than you. I even have my clients imagine that they are moving their awareness from inside their body to somewhere outside to remind themselves of their mission when they are feeling insecure about their choice or when it feels like someone is judging them.

It is Possible to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others.

It is possible to stop comparing yourself to others and to stop feeling the insecurity, shame, and self judgment that comes with it. When you can get curious and specific about where the feelings are coming from, you create more emotional distance from them so that they stop having so much power over you.

Then you can get clear on what you actually want, and make whatever you discover a personal mission so you can feel purposeful and excited about how you truly choose to live your life and career.

Sign up for my free, 3 minute career assessment to get clear what what you actually want to change in your career.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.