Social media is, sometimes, rather great. What’s not to love about aesthetically-pleasing photos of lobster rolls and short videos of baby animals doing baby animal things? With that being said, it can also do a great deal of harm to the overall psyche, especially when it comes to falling into the comparison trap and comparing yourself to others:
My friends just bought a new house; I can barely afford a gym membership.
My sister-in-law had a baby six months ago and has a six-pack; I’ve been as strict-as-can-be and still don’t have washboard abs.
My buddy from work is always on vacation; I haven’t seen the ocean in five years.
While comparing oneself to other individuals is not a new concept brought about by the advent of social media, social media has made the ability to do so much easier, especially when it comes to how we perceive ourselves physically.
“I Want to Look Like Him/Her”
Trainers have heard this declaration more often than they’d like. Clients walk through gym doors with dreams of having the glutes of one celebrity with the arms of another, as if it is possible to pick-and-choose body parts like they’re toppings at a Whole Foods salad bar. Social media adds to this problematic train of thought; after all, every influencer looks the same; every post features a scantily clad woman or a shirtless man, sporting a jarring set of abs, with a motivational caption about how beauty is on the inside.
As trainers, how do we combat this? How we do tell a client that they can’t look exactly like InstaFit99 because that is a completely different person with a completely different life and genetic makeup. How do we ensure that you will be happy with the results that you obtain, even if you don’t suddenly sprout the backside of Jennifer Lopez or the biceps of Marcus Filly?
We do what we’ve implemented at Jungle Gym: we focus on performance first (based on a wide range of variables) and appearance second.
Kicking the Comparison Trap to the Curb
Comparing yourself to someone else is not inherently bad. In fact, sometimes it’s a great way to increase motivation and drive. A competitive runner, for example, may compare himself or herself to other competitors to see where he or she stacks up. Comparison becomes a bad thing when you fall into the comparison trap; where you are running through an endless loop of, “I can’t do XYZ, but they can” or when you discount your accomplishments because someone else has more notable accomplishments under his or her belt.
So, how do we rescue ourselves from this trap? We exercise our minds with the same commitment and discipline that we apply to physical exercise.
— Conduct a social media audit
If you’re one to scroll through Instagram, unfollow accounts that make you question yourself. Unfollow people that make you feel less than. Unfollow fitness and nutrition accounts that use guilt-inducing tactics to “motivate” their followers. After you’ve cleared your feed, follow Jungle Gym.
If you have children with Instagram accounts, make sure that you closely monitor who they’re following as well. Depression among young individuals is on the rise and many experts credit this metric to high social media use. In fact, according to a study conducted by JAMA Pediatrics, depressive symptoms increase for every hour that a teenager spends on social media. Piling onto that, hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders are surging at a concerning rate. Many experts argue that social media is partly to blame.
— Take stock of the situation
When you begin comparing yourself to others and find yourself stuck in the loop that is the comparison trap, take stock of the situation:
Let’s say you are a woman in her 40s. You’re out taking a leisurely evening walk. You’re content. You feel peaceful and gracious. All of the sudden, a woman that is around your age races by you wearing a sports bra; her toned stomach catches your eye. The peace you felt vanishes; the gratitude wanes. “I wish I looked like her. Why don’t I have the energy to run like that after work? She’s much more disciplined than I am.”
It’s easy to take stock of a situation when there are major differences at play: age and visual disabilities, for example, can quickly release you from the comparison trap. It’s a bit more difficult to do so when you encounter someone that you have a lot in common with. When presented with the latter, remember that we are all different, even if it’s not visually apparent. Our priorities are different. Our goals are different. Our lives are different.
This train of thought applies to ourselves as well. Don’t compare the you from five years ago to the you now if that comparison is coming from a negative headspace. For example, five years ago, you may have been able to string together ten strict pull-ups. Now, you can barely manage one because of a chronic connective tissue disorder or because your priorities shifted from strength training to endurance training. You are not less of a person or less of an athlete because you have a limitation that you did not have five years ago or because you have a new set of goals that you are striving to achieve.
— Remember your “Why?”
When it comes to physical fitness, remember why you’re here. Remember why you head to the gym regularly. Remember why you fill your body with whole foods (and the occasional local beer). Yes, it feels nice to look nice. Yes, it feels great when you’re at the top of the leaderboard or when you finish a workout before someone else. Yes, it’s beneficial to have measurable goals.
However, the main reason we train is to live happier and healthier lives. You want to live long enough to meet your grandchildren. You want to feel strong enough to shovel snow, rake leaves, hike mountains, raft the Animas, scale boulders, run ultras, bike trails, and carry game. Remembering your “Why?” can help you bounce back from feeling down about someone else’s accomplishments in the gym.
— Use the, “Yes, but…” approach
He’s done it again. Your friend at the gym has managed to PR his squat by another ten pounds. You’ve been stuck at the same weight for what feels like months, despite actively working to increase your lifting capacity. You’re happy for him, but you’re pretty bummed that you haven’t progressed in this one lift.
This is where the, “Yes, but…” approach comes into play. When you begin to think, “He did XYZ, and I didn’t,” follow that declaration with, “Yes, but…” and insert an accomplishment of yours or a personal quality that you’re proud of:
“He did XYZ, and I didn’t.
Yes, but, I don’t get as fatigued after my sets as I did a few months ago. I’m progressing!”
This is, essentially, the, “speak to yourself the way you’d speak to a loved one” mentality. Combat those thoughts of comparison the same way you would with a friend or your child.
Why Does This Matter?
“Isn’t this more of a mental health thing and not a physical health thing? You’re a fitness facility. Shouldn’t you be writing about exercise and all-things-fitness?”
You don’t have to go too far down the Google rabbit hole to find countless results on how training your brain to think more positively can result in increased physical performance. Obviously, this idea does not extend to those that suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses which may require more than simply reframing negative thoughts. However, for the general population, research has shown that training your brain to think more positively can elicit greater levels of performance in the gym, on the field, or on the trails.
If you find yourself stuck in the comparison trap, utilize the tactics listed above. You’re human. You’re going to compare yourself to others. It’s natural. How you respond to those comparisons, however, can be tweaked in a way that will not only strengthen your mind, but will increase your performance while training as well.