Oh wow, huge news! I hear my partner’s voice say in the next room. Some minutes later, he walks into my study and takes a seat next to my desk. Another one? I ask. He nods slowly. Before we left for our one-year break in Italy, it felt as though every second weekend involved someone’s engagement, wedding, or baby shower. I loved attending these events but I also wondered what was running through my partner’s mind who is six years my senior. He appeared content and happy watching his friends celebrating these major life changes. But I could also see on his face that he was conflicted.
Comparing yourself to others
It can be difficult when all your friends are buying houses, getting married and having babies but you aren’t. This could be because you are not there yet or maybe it’s not something you desire. This can feel particularly prominent if you’re in your early thirties. News of this nature feels as though it’s coming from every direction. There might be an initial rush of joy and awe. But at the same time, there could be a nagging feeling of jealousy, worry, despair, sadness or even embarrassment about your own situation. This can be uncomfortable and there can be the urge to push away these conflicting feelings. However, these feelings are completely natural and are often a by-product of social comparison.
The ‘Game of Life’
Culturally, we have been programmed to view marriage, mortgages and children as ‘normal’ milestones and markers of ‘success’. Therefore, when someone close to us ticks one-off, we can understandably feel as though we are falling behind.
Robert J. Havighurst, a key developmental psychologist, studied and reviewed human norms and assigned a series of ‘developmental tasks’ to each specific age group. He believed that achieving tasks by a certain age led to happiness and success. He argued that ‘failure’ to achieve these tasks resulted in unhappiness, disapproval from society, and difficulty with later tasks (Havighurst, 1953).
According to Havinghurst, the young adult, 18-40 years of age, should be creating a life that considers these tasks:
- Establishing a residence and learning how to manage a household.
- Finding intimacy: forming first close, long-term relationships.
- Learning how to budget, save and maintain material needs.
- Becoming a parent and rearing children: learning how to manage a household with children.
These might sound outdated but Havinghurst’s theory is still highly influential today. While we are considered a progressive country, we still live in a society that engages with these expectations. These expectations appear to be placing too much pressure on those not meeting these expectations by a certain age. This can lead people to feel left out, have a sense of urgency and grapple with low self-worth.
The popular Hollywood film, Bridesmaids, depicts the precise internal experience of someone who has ‘failed’ to meet the tasks of their age period, whilst their best friend is on the road to Havinghurst’s prescribed ‘happiness’ and ‘success’. This experience has been coined ‘status anxiety’, a term first introduced by Alain de Botton in 2004. ‘Status anxiety’ occurs when we compare ourselves to others and fear that we are not meeting society’s standards for success.
However, the contemporary landscape today is significantly different to that of 20-50 years ago. We are seeing a highly competitive and precarious landscape whereby these tasks are increasingly difficult to achieve. But perhaps it isn’t a matter of barriers or constraints but an individual’s genuine choice. That is, you don’t have the maternal or paternal itch, you prefer living in a shared house with your friends or you’ve decided to pivot from the workforce and return to a new field of study. There are many alternative pathways that we must celebrate as ‘normal’.
Be mindful of self-talk
Something we can all do to destabilise traditional standards of ‘normal ‘and ‘success’ is to be mindful of the language. When we are experiencing anxiety we can become black and white in our thinking. Using simplified and reductive language fails to reflect the true complexity of the situation. In moments when my partner receives news about a friend’s engagement or them expecting a child, he forgets this. For about an hour or so the news casts his world in shade. He seems to forget the reason he left his job, leased his house, and sought out Italy for the year. He forgets the nuances of his choices. To focus on the things we don’t have or haven’t done can be a great waste of time. Human comparison is natural, but it is dangerous to linger in this place too long.
Stay in your lane
The biggest risk factor for falling into the ‘comparison trap’ is the use of social media. It makes it incredibly difficult to remain in your own lane. The opportunities for self-comparison, fear of ‘keeping up’ or thoughts of ‘not being enough’ are endless. But you must remember that what you see on social media is unbelievably curated and only a two-dimensional impression. It can be useful to write this down on your phone notes or a surface you interact with every day to remind yourself of this. You are not a piece in a board game, and neither are they!
Learn to live a life aligned with your values
Instead, you should spend time figuring out what you want out of your life and aligning your life with your own personal values– the things that give meaning, purpose and a deeper-rooted sense of completion in your life. Your values might be similar to what give meaning in other peoples’ lives, or they might be very different. The important thing is that you know what matters to you. To read more about exploring your own values, you may like to read Russ Harris’ book, ‘The Happiness Trap’.
In addition, our psychologists at Peaceful Mind Psychology are trained in ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’, a helpful therapy if you are struggling with status anxiety and falling into the comparison trap. If you would like to book an appointment, contact us at Peaceful Mind Psychology.