Even though the big secret of parenting is that no one really knows what they're doing (every parent is learning as they go along), it can feel like some people just naturally have their sh*t together. Whether it's the families with the shiny, happy holiday photos or the moms at school drop-off who appear calm, cool, and collected all the time, it can be tough to give yourself grace when it seems like everyone else is doing it better.
You don't need us to tell you that parenting is f*cking hard. Even on the good days, even under the best of circumstances, even when you have those little magic moments when everyone's safe and smiling and healthy. But playing the comparison game — whether with other moms in your circle or celebrities and influencers online who make it all look so perfect — is a natural biological response, and one psychologist is here to help you navigate those feelings with ease.
Blame It On Your Brain
"Our brains are primed to encourage us to compare ourselves to people that we perceive to be similar to us in some fashion," explains Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a cognitive-behavioral psychologist and author of Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry. "Social psychologists believe that we have an innate self-evaluation drive. This means that we look to other people as a form of assessment of how we ourselves are doing — it is hard for us to get information about ourselves without comparing ourselves to other people."
So yeah, it's totally normal for social creatures such as ourselves to seek internal validation by observing those around us. The problem, says Bacow, is that this internal process is "not very reliable and leads to unfair comparisons and distorted assumptions that we make with limited information, which often causes us to feel bad about ourselves." Essentially, our perceptions and beliefs shape what we think, which may not always be true — in this case, that other parents have some magic parenting secrets or skills we lack.
The Social Media Sabotage
You likely also don't need us to tell you that social media is making things worse. Not only is it impacting the self-esteem of kids of all ages, too much time online isn't great for your mental health either, with multiple studies linking increased time on social media to an increased risk of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and more health concerns.
"Comparing ourselves to other people (in terms of looks, smarts, talent, popularity, wealth, or activities) has skyrocketed with the rise of social media," says Bacow. "It is easy to conclude that your peers and acquaintances (and their friends and relatives) are doing way better than you when they post their highlights and seem to be living their best lives every single day."
And even though you know this, Bacow reiterates that social media consists of "carefully curated feeds and highlight reels." By design, it's supposed to drum up strong emotions, so it's normal if you feel them. "This understandably brings on feelings of self-doubt and envy, along with other negative emotions. It is so easy to assume that someone is doing 'better' than you when you see a glossy photo of a fabulous vacation or a seemingly exciting experience they are having."
But snapshots and short videos, gushing captions, and comments don't paint the entire picture, says Bacow. These snippets don't give "all the facts, and most certainly lack the context that is not visible to us. We are not seeing the delayed flights, the lost luggage, vicious fighting, or food poisoning. It becomes very easy to conclude that other people's lives are amazing and get a case of anxiety-ridden FOMO."
That Mom Life
Bacow explains that our "culture of perfection" can leave moms feeling "very vulnerable to maternal comparison making because of the immense pressure on moms to 'get it all right,’” citing Mom Brain by Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., as a great reference point on the topic. She adds that moms, in particular, "are subject to many unfair judgments from friends, family members, and other parents. We inevitably hold ourselves to unattainable standards and then look to other moms to try to get a sense if we are meeting those standards."
Social media mom shaming adds fuel to the fire, putting unnecessary pressure to do what we think other moms are doing. "If you see other moms feed their infants organic, self-made baby food or breastfeed for two years, or enroll their child in extra academic enrichment, it is very easy to feel you are falling short in some way," she says.
How To Stop Comparison In Its Tracks
Since comparing yourself to those around you is natural, Bacow urges you to remind yourself that you're doing far better than you think, especially when those negative feelings creep up. "While it may feel weird to remind yourself that you are doing better than (at least some) other people, this may be necessary to find balance and to remind yourself that you are doing OK," she says.
Context is everything, and it's usually exactly what is missing from the curated images we see on social media. When it comes to those you're comparing yourself to, Bacow suggests asking yourself: "Do they really have it all together? What else could be going on? Is the source of the judgment you feel you are receiving reliable? Asking these types of questions stems from a psychological approach called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and this type of reframing can be absolutely key to shifting your perspective."
"As they say, comparison is the thief of joy," she continues. "Ask yourself if comparing yourself to other moms is working for you or making you feel too upset. Consider the pros and cons. If you are friends with another mom who is making you feel inferior in some way, it may help to distance yourself from that person. Do you actually like and respect the people you are comparing yourself to? It can sometimes feel so much better if we stick to our values and the things that matter to us the most, including the things in life that are most meaningful to us. Is it really worth it to aim for unreasonable standards? While social comparison is inevitable (after all, we are wired for it), it can sometimes feel 'too much,' and this can be a signal to step away."
This also goes for the mindless scroll that does little to help you unwind. "You can tell you have hit a point of burnout or oversaturation with the scrolling when you start to feel upset or bad about yourself," says Bacow. "At this moment, it is time to walk away and do something else, even for a few minutes. Take a breath. Remember that no one's life is perfect. It may be helpful at minimum to unfollow certain accounts, remove certain apps from your phone, or keep your phone away when you think it will be upsetting or distracting to you."
One final pro tip when it feels like all else has failed: "Focus on yourself and consider all your strengths — including all the ways you are an awesome mom," she says. "You are doing great." And it's true. You really are. We promise!