“You have a new memory,” my phone informed me one evening recently. However ‘new’ it was, this memory did not inspire joy or nostalgia.
Every now and then, my iPhone sends me a push alert to tell me it’s curated a ‘memory’ for me from my camera roll, comprising a photo gallery that’s eerily set to music. This particular trip down memory lane transported me back to a time in my life when I was deeply unhappy. The 25-year-old woman looking up at me from my phone didn’t look like the person I am today. And that difference made me instantly feel bad about myself. Back then, a constellation of events had dealt several blows to my self-esteem, ultimately resulting in disordered eating and rapid, significant weight loss.
After gaining weight in my final year of university, I visited relatives, who pointed out the change in my body. An aunt put her hand on my back and said, “Is that all you?” before asking me if I’d thought about joining a gym. It hurt to hear the very worst things I’d thought about myself uttered aloud by a relative who I’d loved and respected my entire life. Not long after, I had a disastrous relationship and crystallised those feelings of self-loathing. The only solution my inner critic could muster was that if I weighed less, I’d be more deserving of love — both romantic and familial.
My body shrank, but my self-worth did not grow. When I looked in the mirror, my body looked no different to me. Every time I met up with friends, they showered me with compliments, but I just didn’t see it. Rather tellingly, when I eventually started to gain back the weight I’d lost, those compliments stopped, and I started to question my own value.
Seven years on, I look back on photos from that period in my life with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wish I could go back and shake my former self and tell her I didn’t need to lose a single pound to be worthy of anyone’s love. Yet with that frustration comes an undeniable pang — of wishing I still looked like that.
At the start of this year, I decided it was time to take decisive action and do something to improve my self-esteem and mental health. That started with signing up for talking therapy, which I’ve found helpful. But I also want to make sure I’m doing the work outside of my weekly therapy sessions to take control of my self-comparison tendencies and my need for other people’s approval. Keen to find some answers to the age-old question — how do I stop doing this unhelpful thing to myself? — I spoke to several experts about actual things we can do to curb our self-comparison.
Think about things you’re grateful for
If you’re struggling with comparing yourself to the past — be it changes in your mental health, your physical appearance, or your professional circumstances — it’s helpful to anchor your thinking in the present moment and focus on the positives. Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/CEO of My Online Therapy, told me it’s important to acknowledge that the past few months have been challenging for all of us.
“We’ve all had to navigate big changes these past months, and it’s only natural that, to varying extents, this is likely to have had an impact on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing,” said Touroni. “So firstly, be kind to yourself.”
The first step to stopping the comparisons between past and present you is to move your thinking towards things you’re thankful for today. “Shift the focus to a sense of gratitude for how things are right now,” advised Touroni. “Start by making a list of three things you’re grateful for every day, in a diary or on your phone. A short daily mindfulness meditation can also help you with this.” Touroni recommended asking yourself the following question: What is there to be grateful for in this moment now? If your comparison is weight-focused, focus your attention on the amazing things your body does on a daily basis.
Acknowledge your inner critic
When you’re sitting there staring at that old photo of yourself, or looking through bygone Instagram posts and long-since-posted tweets, listen to what that inner voice is saying to you, and make a mental note of it. When I say ‘listen,’ that doesn’t mean ‘believe’ — just acknowledge the interior conversation.
“Thoughts are just that: thoughts. They are not facts.”
Psychologist and parenting coach Dr. Maryhan Baker told me we all have an internal dialogue, but when we’re stuck in the past, it can be very critical. “Our internal chatter often determines our reality — it has our voice so it must be true, right? Wrong,” she said. “Thoughts are just that: thoughts. They are not facts. Being able to recognise them helps us change the dialogue.”
Acknowledge that dialogue and follow it up with a “but” statement. Baker suggested the following example: “I may not feel as confident as I once used to be but I have a job I love and friends who accept me for who I am. I just need to learn to believe in myself more.” Another example is: “I may worry so much more now than I ever used to but I am learning to recognise my triggers and taking the necessary steps to help myself.”
It’s important to recognise when you’re being really unkind to yourself. “Often we critique and talk to ourselves in a way we would never dream of doing to a friend,” Touroni pointed out. “If you find yourself being hard on yourself, ask yourself whether you would talk to a friend in the same way. Show yourself the same kindness and compassion you’d show someone you love.”
Think about who you want to be, not who you were
Listen, the past is long gone. There’s no arguing with that fact. What you can change is your future. Baker advised setting up new positive habits. “The first is to stop habits which keep us stuck being ever critical of ourselves,” she said. This could mean acknowledging that for some, looking back through our phone camera roll triggers critical negative chatter which ultimately is having a toxic impact on our life. Take a critical look at the impact your phone — be it social media or your camera roll — is having on you and crucially whether it’s helping or hindering in eliminating self-comparison.
Once you’ve begun the process of eliminating self-limiting habits, try to set up new habits that help you work towards your aspirations. That could mean keeping a diary to track how you’re feeling, or doing guided meditation that focuses on self-esteem or self-worth.
Follow accounts that show diverse bodies
If your self-comparison relates to weight and body image, recognise that diet culture is likely playing a role. As Hannah Cartwright, nutritionist at the Blue Tree Clinic, explained, diet culture is “a culture that sets a focus on an idealised size which results in many of us trying to fix ourselves, whether that is through meal plans, calorie counting, cosmetic surgery (the list goes on) to do so.” Diet culture is rooted in capitalism. As Cartwright pointed out, “Diet culture makes money from society and feeds off individuals’ insecurities and dissatisfaction with their body image.”
So, how do we overthrow the patriarchy and practice radical self-acceptance and self-love? Well, for a small but effective start, follow accounts on social media that show (and celebrate) bodies that look like yours.
If your Instagram feed is full of thin bodies that don’t look like yours, it’s worth considering the effect that might be having on you. Instagram has been ranked the worst social network for young people’s mental wellbeing, and can cause feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Research has shown that exposure to images of thin bodies can make people — even those with high self-esteem — engage in negative self-comparison. Furthermore, a 2016 review of cross-cultural research established a link between social media usage and body image problems and disordered eating.
Author and activist Sofie Hagen in her book Happy Fat discusses the concept of exposure in overcoming internalised fatphobia and learning to love your body. Hagen recommended following the , which is a collection of beautiful nude portraits of fat people that aims to “commonly accepted notions of a narrow and specific beauty ideal.”
If you feel you need to take a break from social media for a little while, go for it.
Make peace with your current self
It sounds really hard to do, but a really important step in moving away from self-comparison is acceptance of who you are right this minute. You might not necessarily feel ready to write a gratitude list, but you can acknowledge the changes between your past and present self.
If self-acceptance feels far-off and you can’t stop looking at old photos of yourself, consider moving those photos into a folder to make them less accessible. If you’re feeling really brave, you might even consider deleting them entirely.
Baker told me accepting your current situation is an important step in bringing about meaningful change. “This will include all the hurt and pain you feel, the anger and resentment that you are no longer who you once were,” said Baker. “Acceptance doesn’t mean resigning yourself to never making changes, it’s being able to understand we can never be who we once were because we have changed in more than just the physical.”
You don’t have to turn your back on your past self, just keep your eye on the real prize.
Life and business coach Michael Cloonan recommended making peace with yourself and the old you. “We get so swept away with life that, at times, we forget who we are and how far we have come,” said Cloonan. “We look back at a time in our lives when we were out laughing, partying, socialising — doing things our younger selves tend to do. We forget that as we get older things change, our environment changes, our responsibilities change, and we have to adjust,” he said.
If you’re really struggling with comparing yourself to an old version of you, first of all, know that you’re not alone. As we grow older, our bodies and faces change, but deep down inside (where it counts) we’re the same person. You don’t have to turn your back on your past self, just keep your eye on the real prize: your present and future self.