Wouldn’t you like to be immune to comparison? To devote your energy to making your own goals happen rather than enviously poring over the details of other people’s successes?
We live in a world in which comparing ourselves with others is easier than ever. Social media means we’re constantly invited to measure the curated high points of other people’s lives against the everyday ups and downs of our own reality.
From a neuroscientific point of view, this can be harmful for two reasons. First, it’s distracting and energy intense. Social media requires you to make a lot of decisions: what to like, how to comment, what content to post and how to frame it. These low-level decisions add up and deplete your cognitive resources for the times when you really need them in your own life.
Second, overuse of social media can trigger your ‘lack’ thinking mode, whereby you activate your brain’s negative pathways as a result of focusing on everything you don’t have and others do. Research into teenage behaviours shows that negative body image and self-objectification are directly related to social-media usage.
The good news is that there is plenty you can do to inoculate yourself against the urge to compare yourself, whether online or in real life, with friends you perceive to be more successful or happier. By focusing on modifications that harness the power of neuroplasticity – your brain’s ability to change for the better – you will be able to build your resilience. Remember, nobody is born confident; it is something you can work at. Here are some ideas for how to do just that:
Think abundantly. This can help you reframe others’ successes as inspiring rather than threatening. Tell yourself there is enough to go around for everyone (partners, great jobs and money). Thinking abundantly translates into liking, commenting and engaging on social media, spreading the love around, focusing more on the positive responses you give to other people than you do on your own feed. This emphasis on giving is a good way to counteract the narcissistic tendencies social media can fuel.
Switch your self-talk. You know that negative voice inside your head? Ask yourself what its underlying message is. It will usually speak to your deepest insecurity, whether that’s “I don’t have what it takes to be successful” or “Change is dangerous. I’d better stay where I am”. Take this exact message and find its opposite: “I am successful” or “Change is exciting”. Repeat this aloud, and with feeling, whenever you remember.
The greater the positive emotional charge you can give your affirmations, the more likely it is your brain will take note of them. This is because emotionally charged thoughts activate a ‘value tagging’ system in the brain that tags not only what is important to you deep down but also creates a sense of your place in the world, such as your identity in life (I belong) or your purpose at work (what I do is meaningful).
Hold on to good feelings. Wellbeing and resilience have been linked with the ability to sustain positivity and savour happy moments after they have passed. In 2015, researchers at CIHM in the University of Wisconsin-Madison used brain scans to demonstrate that those who were able to maintain those good feelings had sustained ventral striatum engagement.
This area of the brain is part of the basal ganglia, where our internal reward systems are found. You can work on enhancing this ability yourself by making a point of noticing your successes. Write down your greatest achievements of the past year and past five years, with a line or two on what you learnt from each of them. I recommend writing a miniature version of this list every night too. Note down the compliments you get. Print out pictures of yourself you like. This will help remind you that there is plenty you are doing that is good.
Get used to fake stress. Boost your natural mental and physical resilience by trying intermittent fasting (this could be as simple as only eating between 12 noon and 8pm most days) or having a regular ice-cold shower followed by a sauna. Training yourself to endure temporary hardship has been found to improve immunity (fasting) and build the brain’s fight or flight response (cold-water immersion), rather like the way allergies are sometimes treated through controlled exposure to the allergen.
Let unhelpful thoughts move along. Regular mindfulness meditation will help you to allow unfriendly thoughts to pass without clinging on to them. This way, you avoid veering off down an inadequacy-inducing rabbit hole of comparison, a huge waste of brain energy that comes at a great cost to your confidence.
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