How to Help A Kid Who Feels Overwhelmed by Comparison

Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver a series of interactive assemblies to the freshman class at a local high school. During each of the four separate sessions, older student leaders joined and took turns sharing meaningful life lessons they learned throughout high school. One story stood out to me:

Isla (name changed) talked about her recent experience with the college admissions process. Before she started applying, she felt herself getting wrapped up in comparison—paying close attention to schools her peers were applying to and unconsciously adding those schools to her application list (often prestigious, out of reach for her, and beyond even what she was interested in). She even confessed to the little tiny 9th graders that she found herself fictionalizing her application essays to project an image of herself that she felt she had to sell to get accepted. Until one day, she looked at herself in the mirror and had a wake-up moment. She said she realized how far down the path of comparison she’d gone, so far that she no longer recognized herself. Ultimately, she decided to rewrite her essays to be more authentic and honest and, in her words, “accept where the chips would fall.” She said she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she got accepted into a school that she wasn’t a good fit for, and decided to put her true self out there at the threat of rejection. 

The thing is, her confession isn’t unique to teenagers growing up—comparison can be a thief throughout our entire lives. 

The other day, I had a work call with a guy who mentioned two other organizations that do “the exact same thing” as the YouSchool. Before I consciously realized it, I was on both of their websites scrolling through the ‘About Us’ pages and ‘What We Do’ pages and flipping between thinking to myself, “These guys have no clue how to do this work,” to, “What am I even trying for?”. I must admit it took me a couple of days to recognize how disoriented I got after that quick comment. I vacillated between an ‘I’ll show them’ type of energy to a ‘I don’t have what it takes’ vibe. 

Every time I go down the comparison path, I get overwhelmed and confused, and a worse version of myself emerges. 

It’s hard not to let that happen. Comparison is unavoidable. On the one hand, it’s how we learn—through mimicry and models. But on the other hand, comparison can spark feelings of inadequacy, envy, and even shame. At the very least, it’s vital to learn to be vigilant and reflective when we find ourselves comparing to others. Here are some questions that might help:

  • Who do you compare yourself to? What about them either makes you inspired and motivated or discouraged and feeling worse?
  • Who models a kind of life that you respect and appreciate? What is it about them? What parts of them do you see in yourself?
  • Who might you be tempted to be envious of or competitive with? What will you gain if you ‘beat them’? What will you lose if you don’t?

Healthy mimicry is possible and can be extremely beneficial—but the key is intentional reflection. 

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For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

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