The reality of tech and social media means we’re incessantly exposed to images of highly successful professionals, surrounded by equally amazing people who are dressed to impress. They’re sitting in first class, jetting around the world by the Fortune 500 companies they work for, and taking holidays in the Seychelles or joining Richard Branson at Necker Island.

Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and even some podcasts continue to perpetuate this idea of career success. Together, the message they tell us is, “If they can do it, you can do it too.” But as you compare your life to theirs, it seems like you’ll never stack up.

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It’s why many of us often get that familiar feeling of career comparison.

What is career comparison syndrome?

It’s also known as social comparison theory, obsessive comparison disorder or the “compare and despair” effect. The concept of career comparison syndrome is similar to impostor syndrome in that it makes you feel inadequate and you don’t measure up. In terms of success, status and influence, it makes us feel like we must work harder and longer to get closer to where our roles models are.

The comparison tends to affect younger women more than men. And gender differences in confidence are quite extraordinary. A study from Cornell University found that men overestimate their abilities and performance while women underestimate both, when in fact, their actual performance does not differ in quality or quantity.

This is exacerbated when the social media accounts that look picture perfect are those of your work peers, especially those who have recently achieved a job promotion, or you know are earning more than you, or appear more ‘favoured’ than you in the workplace.

But why?

Human nature is aspirational – we are drawn to the success stories and we feel inadequate if our success does not measure up. We’re also amid this powerful trend of influencers on social media. They share their “rags to riches” stories, and promote their partnerships paid in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. And the line between reality and social media reality is blurred once again.

Warnings signs of career comparison syndrome

Do any or most of the below points resonate with you?

  • Feeling your colleagues are more successful than you
  • You receive a pay rise and feel inadequate, as your colleague got a bigger pay rise
  • You feel you are unfairly passed over for promotion and can’t sleep at night because of it
  • Feeling waves of envy whenever you see ‘success’ images on social media
  • An avid appetite to follow every beautiful, successful influencer
  • Comparing your life to these curated images
  • Feeling depressed when you open social media and see what others are doing
  • Feeling anxious when you scroll through the stories and images
  • Becoming addicted and obsessed by certain influencers in your industry or profession who seem more successful than you
  • Checking social media more than 4 times a day to see what others are doing

Case study

Amy was a very successful designer at a luxury fashion label. Her salary was above average for her industry, and she won 2 awards. She rented her own apartment in Bondi, close enough to walk to the beach for a swim in the mornings before heading to work.

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Her colleague, also a designer, was sent on assignment to New York to consult during a fashion shoot, and managed to book in a short holiday after the assignment. During that time Amy followed her colleague’s activities on social media and felt twinges of envy of every beautiful photo that was posted.

Amy was experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out) and began to worry that her career was suffering because she was not chosen for the assignment. She started to obsess about her colleague that it affected her own work. She felt resentful, and then angry, and consequently she wanted to quit her job and find a new one. She sought external support to find a new role.

When I started coaching her, she told me she hated her job, hated the industry and just wanted out. She wanted to do something completely different.

After a series of assessments, we found what she was doing matched her career values, she was earning an above-average salary that enabled her to lead a life she aspired to, she respected her manager, enjoyed her job function, liked her colleagues, and in actual fact, loved the industry.

Without taking a step back to consider what was truly important to her, she became consumed by the activities of one colleague rather than being happy for them. Her envy turned to jealousy and suddenly her view on life was negative.

How to overcome career comparison syndrome

To help Amy overcome this mindset, her feelings of inadequacy and FOMO, we focused on all the positive attributes Amy possessed. The more positive feedback she gained from others, the higher her self-esteem grew. Combined with the clarity she gained about herself and what was truly important to her, her confidence grew.

This is what we worked through:

  • Identify your skills and knowledge and the enjoyment level of each skill required in your job
  • Identify your core values – personal and career values – and which values are being met and where there are any gaps
  • Identify your tangible accomplishments – what you have achieved that make a difference to your company, clients, peers, and industry
  • Identify where you want to be in the next 18 months, 2 years and 5 years
  • Identify what legacy you want to leave as a professional and as a human being
  • Create your mission statement – a go-to that will be your ‘anchor’ during difficult times and help you stay true to yourself

Armed with this information, Amy was able to take a realistic look at her life, her role, her career aspirations and her industry. She realised no one can control external events but we can control how we react to situations.

RELATED: Are you stuck in a rut at work?

7 tips for getting match-fit for work

  1. Stay in your lane – focus on being the best version of you 
  2. Understand your own values and what drives you
  3. Every month write down your tangible achievements
  4. Make a list of activities that will help you to grow as a professional, and will advance your career to where you want to be
  5. Commit to action what is possible so that you are always learning and growing
  6. Use the success of others as a benchmark only if that is what you truly aspire to
  7. Celebrate your wins and be generous in celebrating the wins of others

Whenever you feel career comparison creeping up on you, take a step back and remind yourself of your own mission in life. If you remain on the right road, stay focused on your goal, your career anchor, and the values that drive you, then feel proud you have made the right decisions for a happy life and career.

Join Jane Jackson at The Careers Academy where you will find all the career resources you need to take control of your life – both professional and personal.

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