Life in school: How to stop comparing myself to others

life in school: How to stop comparing myself to others

If you clicked on this article, you must have thought to yourself at least once in your schooling life, ‘Dang. Why am I doing so badly compared to everyone else?’

Let’s face it. Seeing other people do better than you in school is frustrating, especially when you’re one of the bottom few in the class.

Class averages, percentiles, cohort rankings – all these metrics are meant for us to ‘see where we stand in comparison to our peers’.

Comparison is inevitable, and it does give us a glimpse into what the ‘standard’ is. And to be fair, it’s not inherently bad.

But comparison walks a fine line being a source of motivation or toxicity.

Comparison is crippling to our self-esteem when we extrapolate our performance in school to our sense of identity. And that’s the kind of comparison that we need to stop!

But first…

Why do we compare ourselves to others?

Comparing ourselves is instinctual. Our minds don’t judge things based on absolutes; it always takes reference points to evaluate.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called Social Comparison Theory. It describes the tendency to compare our characteristics and abilities with others to evaluate ourselves because there are no objective criteria to evaluate ourselves with.

Essentially, we gauge how well we’re doing based on how well others are doing.

While this mindset is innate, our education system, unfortunately, contributes to us thinking it’s the correct way of gauging our abilities.

Let’s say we do decently well on a paper judging by score. If we’re below the cohort average, many of us still get discouraged.

It is undeniable that getting good grades is a marker of success in school. However, comparing our academic performance with someone else’s does more harm than we might think.

Why we should stop comparing ourselves.

It’s a futile and useless fight.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” – President Theodore Roosevelt

There will always be someone better than us. If we continually fix our eyes on the people we aim to beat, we’re going to be perpetually discouraged because comparison is a never-ending cycle.

Stellar academic performance won’t even get us that far in the bigger scheme of things.

Sure, it gets us into the next phase of our education, and for the uni kids, it may help in securing your first job. But if the goal of schooling is to secure us a job, performance in school isn’t all people are looking for.

Employers are looking for values like curiosity, a desire to explore and humility, as brought up by company leaders in this discussion on employability organised by NTU. This is why employers hold job interviews and ask for your resume – it’s to get a better sense of who you are as a person!

Making connections with people is also very advantageous in the workplace. According to CNBC, up to 80% of employees are hired through personal or professional connections.

So there’s no need to compare yourself to people doing ‘better’ than you! Academic performance doesn’t determine everything.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a process where an originally false expectation leads to its own confirmation.

An example of this is the Stereotype Threat study conducted by Claude M. Steele in 1997.

The study involved two groups of African American students – one group was told they were less intelligent because of their race; the other wasn’t told anything.

Unsurprisingly, the group that was told they were less intelligent performed significantly worse on a test than the other group.

Constantly comparing ourselves with others causes us to doubt our own ability, thus we believe that we’re truly inadequate. This strips away our confidence and motivation to put more effort into practising and getting better.

Of course, a lack of practice comes with actually not improving, which only confirms our suspicion that we’re incompetent.

We lose sight of our value.

Arguably the most important point is this – what is your definition of success? What do you want to do with your life, and how will you get there?

Comparing ourselves with others assumes that we want the same things as other people – a costly assumption when we realise too late that what we chased after isn’t really what we want!

Brené Brown, a widely-famous researcher of shame and vulnerability, said this about conformity and competition:

“…you lose sight of your inherent worthiness. You begin to base your self-worth on how well you match up against others—on how well you’re conforming.”

You think you’ll only be worthy if you meet certain standards of behaviour. This means that we think the things we do make up who we are.

This is incompatible with the unconditional self-acceptance that underpins true worthiness.

Aside from academic performance, there are so many other definitions of success! Maybe you’re interested in starting a side hustle — here are 3 students who found success in their side hustles.

We need to stop comparing ourselves to other people! While it’s easy to say, it’s hard to do.

Here are a few steps that you can take to get started.

6 ways to stop comparing yourself to others

The golden rule: Find a sense of worthiness in yourself.

This is probably the most abstract because it’s a mindset change, but it’s also the most important in curbing comparison.

The concept is simple: to reduce the desire to compare ourselves, we need to be confident of ourselves as individuals! We should be convinced that because we are alive and breathing, we have inherent value and worth.

When we let our achievements define us, our identity is defined externally from who we are, which is volatile and is sometimes not even in our control. When we believe that we are inherently worthy, things that happen outside of ourselves don’t affect our self-esteem.

If you couldn’t get the scholarship, it’s okay! Because that doesn’t mean that you’re any less worthy or valuable than the people who did.

If you got bad results for an exam this time, no biggie! You are worth more than just the grades on your results slip.

In a Ted talk, Brown shared that according to her research, people who accept and love themselves don’t compare themselves or question their abilities.

If you want to care for yourself more, check out these self-care Instagram accounts for tips and tricks.

Dare to be different.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Once we know that we are worthy of love no matter what, we can be more confident that being different doesn’t mean being inferior.

Brown describes this as ‘braving the wilderness’ – pulling away from the norms and standards of the community you live in. The marker of being able to ‘brave the wilderness’ is tuning out what other people define as success. In this case, it’s the belief that good academic performance is the main definition of success.

Here’s a classic example – you know how after a test, everyone rushes to compare answers? If you can tune that out and be comfortable with not knowing how you did, you’ve braved the wilderness, my friend.

But of course, this doesn’t mean that we become content with where we are. We should always be aiming to grow.

Have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.

Chase your dreams by following up webtoon
Photo by @wholesomecomic on Instagram

Now that you’ve established that nothing can change your sense of worthiness, you can develop a healthy mindset for growth.

A fixed mindset says that talent and intelligence are fixed, while a growth mindset believes that they can be improved over time. Growth is a process!

All because you aren’t where you want to be now doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. When we believe we can improve, comparisons don’t damage our self-esteem as much.

In The Science of Wellbeing course by Yale University, Professor Laurie Santos describes the ‘WOOP’ method, a great framework for turning a growth mindset into practical steps:

  1. Wish – What do you want to achieve?

Try to set a goal that is specific and quantifiable, i.e. countable

  1. Outcome – What does the positive outcome look like?

Envision and imagine what the positive outcome would look like

  1. Obstacles – What are some obstacles that you may face along the way?

This reminds us that though we want a good thing, it needs effort and action to get there.

  1. Plan – If an obstacle gets in your way, what will you do?

When we plan for and anticipate obstacles, we are less likely to follow our auto instincts or emotions in the situation and throw in the towel.

This allows us to define success based on what we can control, rather than what we cannot.

If you need some inspiration to get work done, check out these 50 inspirational quotes for some motivation. Or if you want to focus on developing yourself first, these self-improvement books will help.

While all these are good and dandy, stopping comparisons with others is a process, not an overnight event. There are bound to be negative thoughts that come along the way.

Name your inner critic.

Be strong
Photo by @wholesomecomic on Instagram

The inner critic is the stem of all our negative thought cycles, the voice of shame and fear. Most of the time, we take what it says as true.

This is why we tend to treat ourselves more harshly than we do other people. We believe all the negative comparisons our critic says.

But most of the time, these thoughts are quite irrational. Naming your inner critic (as in very literally giving it a name like Carly or Jake) helps us to see our critic as someone outside of ourselves and not believe everything it says.

A good gauge is this – if you hear your critic say something you wouldn’t say to a friend, don’t believe it about yourself.

If you’re having consistent negative thoughts and you’re considering counselling, check out this list of free and affordable counselling centres in Singapore.

STOP technique – to ‘shock’ your inner critic out of negative thought cycles.

Professor Santos recommends a method that comes from cognitive behavioural therapy to stop ourselves from comparing.

Here’s how it works: Maybe you just got bad scores on a test for the nth time. You think, “I will never be able to improve, my brain is just slower than other people, I am disadvantaged.”

When you notice that you’re comparing yourself to other people, verbally say out loud, “Stop!”

This causes your brain to take a moment and register the stop in the thought process. When you do this often enough, your brain will slowly stop making these comparisons altogether.

If you’re a JC student and undergoing loads of stress, here are 10 important ways to cope with stress.

Change your environment.

Small environmental changes can prevent comparative thoughts from coming at all! These tips come from the Science of Wellbeing course as well.

First, fix bad environments.

For example, social media is a breeding ground for comparing ourselves with others. We love comparing our behind-the-scenes with other people’s highlight reels.

Deleting social media for a while may help to clear your mind from these comparison-triggering cues.

Other ways you can do this is like what I’ve mentioned above – after a test, walk out of the exam hall without looking back! Comparing answers with other people will only breed bad thoughts.

Then, promote healthy environments.

Place positive reminders on your desk or set them as your phone’s lock screen. And best of all, if other friends are struggling with comparison, be accountable to each other!

You can point out each others’ comparisons in conversation and help each other be more aware of them.

In summary

Hopefully, these tips on how to stop comparing yourself to others are helpful for you. Don’t be discouraged if it’s a struggle to control these thoughts; learning to stop comparing ourselves is a process.

Remember that regardless of your school achievements, you are still worthy and valuable! And nothing will change that.

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