Escaping the Comparison Trap

Walking to my gate, remembering the before images, I was reminded of how deceiving it is to compare myself or my life with what I see in the media, online, or anywhere else.

Several years ago, I visited an old friend in New York City for a long weekend. One of the first places she wanted to take me was a diner (aptly named “The Diner”) near her apartment. The Diner was special to her—she and her family had eaten there countless times.

Sitting across the booth from her that afternoon, drinking coffee, dipping our fries in salt and ketchup, and diving deep into conversation, I noticed the man at the table next to us. Or maybe, more accurately, I should say I noticed the technology that he’d brought with him. Other customers in the restaurant tapped away at laptops, but this man also had a few external drives on his table, their bulky cords leaving the waitress few places to set anything down.

My friend and I had a lot to talk about, so initially I didn’t pay much attention to our hard-working neighbor. But as the hours passed, I couldn’t help noticing him click on and then enlarge images on his screen. The subjects of these pictures were obviously models. Beautiful and lithe and standing on a beach, they wore bathing suits in some shots and street clothes in others, ever flashing that icy model glare, as though they were somehow bored with, or inconvenienced by, the photo shoot.

As the man clicked through the images, I saw him tap on this one’s face, drag the mouse to this one’s torso or bust, or do an extreme close-up on another’s hair. Click, click, click—I saw the way he artfully nipped and tucked and airbrushed and filled in each image. I watched eyes turn a brighter, almost violet, shade of blue. I saw freckles and shadows disappear. Brows were darkened, lips plumped. These already lean models became taller and thinner, right before my eyes.

I was reminded of how deceiving it is to compare myself or my life with what I see in the media, online, or anywhere else.

At one point, he left his table and headed for the restroom.

“Are you seeing this?” I asked my friend when he was safely out of earshot. “Come look!”

On the screen was a grid of the pictures he had been modifying.

“Whoa,” she said. “I recognize some of them.”

I told her what he’d been doing. Slimming the waist of that one, smoothing out this one’s skin, erasing pores. We gawked at the images for a second before she quickly slipped back to her side of the booth.

Several months later, walking through an airport, I passed a newsstand and saw one of the images he had doctored on the front of a magazine. The woman was a study in perfection: her facial features exactly symmetrical, her complexion flawless, her clothes like they’d been made just for her. (And that telltale irritated gaze!)

Walking to my gate, remembering the before images, I was reminded of how deceiving it is to compare myself or my life with what I see in the media, online, or anywhere else.

The Lies Social Media Tells

It’s not just retouched photos on magazine covers that cause us to feel dissatisfied with who we are. Social media can mislead our followers about what our lives are really like as we carefully curate which images and news we share. Most of us aren’t even intentionally scheming; we’re just following accepted rules of etiquette.

That is, our social media posts are sometimes called “the highlight reel” of our experiences. Privately we know all too well what is less than ideal about our lives, yet we continue to post pictures of that perfect birthday cake, the 25-pound rainbow trout we caught, or that grinning graduate . . . but many of us remain quiet about the first cake that burned to a crisp, the miserable early morning hours waiting for the fish to bite, and how excruciatingly difficult it was to wake that child up for school every day for thirteen years.

I recently ran into a friend from church and told her that, as I’d seen the photos she posted on Facebook, her family vacation looked like fun.

Privately we know all too well what is less than ideal about our lives

“Ha!” She laughed, rolling her eyes. She then confessed that her children had bickered incessantly, it rained every day, and that they’d had to do major repair on their cottage. “I’d call it more like a ‘vacation.’” She made air quotes over that last word, pronouncing it with thick sarcasm.


I’m sure she wasn’t trying to deceive her friends by what she posted—she just uploaded some happy shots from the trip, maybe to help her see the bright side of that time together or to help her, later, to remember her children at this particular moment in time. But the hard parts of the vacation were hidden from view.

In one study on the authenticity of what we post on social networking sites, researchers found that less than 20% of users—both women and men—said that their Facebook pages displayed a “completely accurate reflection” of who they are. In the same study, respondents admitted that they only shared “non-boring” parts of their lives and were not as “active” as their social media posts indicated.

Of course, it’s understandable that, just as we wouldn’t bother sharing the news with a friend that the mail arrived late today and only contained a stack of junk mail, there’s good reason why we don’t post the most tedious details of life: they’re dull and usually not worth mentioning. I wouldn’t waste precious time with a friend talking about mundane things; I want to get to the heart of things—my struggles, hopes, and what made me feel hope or joy this week. And, indeed, sometimes the moments that lift my spirit are tiny and photographable: a good cup of coffee, a meaningful gift, or a certificate earned by one of my children.

It’s useful to remember that everyone’s life contains the same frustrating or mind-numbingly boring details that we live through every day, even if we don’t see them posted online.

Dr. Cortney Warren, who authored an article on the ways people present their lives on social media, cites research that suggests that comparing ourselves to what others post online can result in lower self-esteem and decreased life satisfaction, if we aren’t careful not to get lost in comparison.

Warren recommends:

“.  . . when engaging with social media, it is critical to remind yourself that what you see is not an accurate picture of reality. Don’t compare yourself to the images of friends, colleagues, or celebrities. Remind yourself that it is just a snapshot of their life—and one they want you to see.”

A recent news story is a grim illustration of this. Reporting the tragic murders of a woman and her two daughters by the husband and father in the family, the report begins with the words, “On social media, [they] were a smiling, picture-perfect couple.” The article goes on to describe their active social networking presence and the family’s myriad photos of happy, oceanfront vacations, and it quotes posts in which they gushed about their love for each other.

Since the murders, however, other news came to light. The couple had dire financial problems and, reportedly, he was unfaithful. A neighbor said she’d once seen them bitterly arguing, but when the couple realized they were being observed, they quickly turned on sunny expressions and waved.

Most friends and neighbors of the family seemed stunned by the murders. Their comments were variations on one theme: “But they seemed so happy!” But, again, what they had posted online was simply a carefully curated version of their lives for public consumption.

Of course, not all of us exclusively post Pinterest-perfect moments of life or hide such brutal realities. For some, “getting real here” and posting a picture of the rejection letter or mound of dirty laundry, or even writing a detailed description of that embarrassing moment can alleviate stress.

A few months ago, halfway through an important presentation, the combination of a hot meeting room, way too much caffeine, strong cold medicine, a skipped breakfast, and a hectic morning left me standing behind a podium, sweating profusely. My heart racing, I spoke so rapidly it sounded as if I were on fast-forward. I often speak in front of groups, and this hadn’t happened to me before. Sweat dripped off me as though I’d walked through a sprinkler. I panted almost as though I’d just finished a race. In short, it was mortifying.

On arriving home that day, I described what happened in a Tweet accompanied by a GIF of a woman putting a paper bag over her head in abject shame. This little social media move helped me to take the experience less seriously and to find the comedy in it; people shared their own funny stories of meltdowns while speaking in public, reminding me that I wasn’t alone.

By comparing my most embarrassing moment—to date—with those of the kind folks on Twitter who offered condolences, silly stories of their own, and affirmation helped me recover from that unfortunate event.

We can always identify someone with a better job, a bigger house, or whose talents are more celebrated.

“Social Comparison Theory,” developed by American social psychologist Leon Festinger, explains that the way we define ourselves is by comparing ourselves—our intelligence, self-worth, and appearance, among other things—to others. A description of Social Comparison Theory explains:

“People are driven to acquire a precise assessment of themselves by discerning their abilities and opinions in comparison with individuals around them.”

And social media gives us plenty of benchmarks for comparison. Sadly, too often comparing our lives to others makes us feel that we aren’t “enough” or don’t have enough. We can always identify someone with a better job, a bigger house, or whose talents are more celebrated.

And, as Christians, we can even fall into the trap of being jealous about other people’s spiritual lives. We might think people have deeper understandings of their faith than we do, closer relationships with God, or even are gifted with “better” (more useful, more important, more appealing) spiritual gifts.

Paul cleverly—if a bit eccentrically—addresses this kind of spiritual comparison, writing:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:14–18, 27 ESV)

And that body of Christ requires no retouching or Photoshop work; it is perfectly created to know and love God, corporately and each in our own individual lives.

No comparisons needed.