Comparing yourself to others is tough.
There is always someone smarter. Someone richer. Someone with more Bumble dates than you.
Social comparison is part of our human biology. It helps us suss out our place in the scheme of things, recognizing our strengths and weaknesses. It teaches us when to step up or shut up.
But there is a far more sinister kind of comparison.
It flies under the radar, almost never discussed. And its effects can be more menacing than the most vicious of social comparisons.
Let’s call it past-self comparison.
It’s the comparison we make between our current self and an idealized version of a past-self we protect, admire, and idolize in our memory bank.
I know what you may be thinking: The best is yet to come. My future self will inevitably be an enhancement on my past-self…right?
But we make so many decisions rooted in anxiety, fear, and comparative obsession that our future self must outdo our past-self. That we must never downgrade, regress, or backtrack.
We must constantly outshine our own past-selves.
We compare our current status to the times we were most successful. I guarantee you know exactly times you were in the best shape. The year you dated the uncatchable fish. The era you had the most enviable job.
These time points serve as invisible but deeply invasive modulators of our current decision-making. They are barometers against which we measure the soundness of our next step.
And this existential past-self comparison can be paralyzing.
The pressure to constantly outperform yourself is perhaps most visible in celebrities, particularly artists and musicians. For instance, Lady Gaga’s documentary profiled a deeply anxious woman who lived in fear of never reliving the adoration of her “Bad Romance” years.
But the great irony of past-self comparison is that we often compare our current self to successful time points that we ourselves didn’t particularly enjoy. For Lady Gaga, the years her fame peaked were wrought with struggle and angst.
But your past-self doesn’t have to hold you hostage.
You don’t need to be bound by pressure to outscore your wins of yesterday. Especially when those “wins” may be more real in memory than in actuality.
You can find freedom from pesky past-self comparisons when you learn to identify when and why you’re making those comparisons.
Here are three past-self comparisons to watch out for:
1. You Make Past-Self Comparisons to the Time You “Peaked”
Or at least, the time everyone else thought you peaked.
It can be frustrating when others think you’re living your best life and you know you’re not. But it can be maddening to feel like you must maintain that level of faux success, for the sake of not backtracking.
Maybe this is the successful past-self with the impressive job. Or the popular past-self from college. It’s not uncommon for public perception of your “peak moments,” your eras of greatest success, to be wildly off base with reality.
During times of internal struggle, we can flip on the impression management switch. We compensate for unhappiness by making our appearance anything but. We throw people off our scent.
Sometimes the months or years we’re actually happiest are the most humble, inconspicuous, and unimpressive points on our public facing journey.
Honesty: Be honest about the times you “peaked.” Were these really the times you were happiest? Don’t base your future self on a “peak” that didn’t get you high.
Humility: It’s okay if your true “peaks” weren’t sexy. It’s fine if they weren’t when others thought you were “crushing it.” Don’t compare your current self to a past-self that wasn’t all its cracked up to be.
Reframing: If you want to make comparisons to your past-self, select comparative qualities that will serve you best moving forward. Instead of comparing when you peaked in popularity, perhaps look at when you peaked in kindness.
2. You Make Past-Self Comparisons to Everyone Else’s Favorite Version of You
Has anyone ever said, “What happened to that (insert your name)?”
As if they are nostalgically pleading for an apparently misplaced artifact that was once you?
Perhaps they’re longing for the fun past version of you who danced on tables and bought everyone shots. Or some other past-self who isn’t someone you still want to be.
We adopt and shed many skins over a lifetime. Some we try on for one night. Others we wear for years. But when your future self is constricted by the externally attractive past skins that get too tight or that never really fit at all, we can get into an anxious authenticity crisis.
Authenticity: If everyone else’s favorite version of you isn’t your own favorite version of you, then you probably haven’t shown other people the best parts of you…yet. Get out there and put your real self on display.
Ownership: You don’t owe anyone the rights to your self circa 2014. If people miss or idealize a certain past version of you, you may want to evaluate their sincerity in supporting you on your journey.
Impermanence: You have every right to change. In the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.”
3. You Make Negative Comparisons to a Nostalgic Past-Self
Nostalgia is a longing for an idealized past. A fond sentiment for the dates, parties, and teenage dreams of yesteryear.
And most of the time, nostalgia promotes psychological well-being. It brings us back to times of comfort and security, reminding us of our hopes and goals. But nostalgia can be destructive when we make negative, rather than positive comparisons.
Negative comparisons to a nostalgic past-self can sound like, “I used to be thin, but now I’m not. I used to be fun, but now I’m boring. I used to think I could conquer the world, but now I realize I’m just average.”
This isn’t to say you can’t reflect nostalgically on who you were in the past. But if take a trip down memory lane, don’t let your past-self find your current self in a dark alley.
Positivity: Maybe it’s true that you used to have “more friends.” But instead of focusing on the negative, frame it as a positive, “I used to have lots of friends, but now I have really genuine friends.” Rework your self evaluations to look for the positive.
Progress: Focus on areas where you’ve made the most progress. Give yourself credit for the big jumps you’ve made, “I used to be nice, but now I am also deeply compassionate.”
Humor: If all else fails, humor can make a negative nostalgic past-self comparison lighter. So maybe you’ve gained a few pounds. It’s okay to want to get back to “normal.” Just do everything you can to frame that comparison with humor, optimism, and levity.
In the words of Katherine Anne Porter, “The past is never where you think you left it.” Use your past-self as a barometer, but use it kindly. The best is certainly yet to come.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”―Kierkegaard