Finding your unique edge: Overcoming comparison syndrome in job interviews

Oct 09, 2023

6 mins

Finding your unique edge: Overcoming comparison syndrome in job interviews
Natalia Barszcz

Freelance journalist and writer

In the competitive realm of job hunting, many individuals grapple with comparison syndrome—a phenomenon rooted in social comparison theory. This tendency leads job seekers to constantly measure themselves against their peers, often resulting in feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. In this article, we’ll dive into the nature of comparison syndrome throughout the job interview process, offering actionable strategies to conquer it. We’ve gathered insights from Marcia Wall, a career success coach, and Ashley Rutstein, a freelance creative director and TikTok content creator at Stuff About Advertising to help you beat comparison syndrome on the job hunt.

Defining comparison syndrome

Comparison syndrome dates as far back as 1954 when Theodore Festinger first introduced it as social comparison theory. Nowadays, a few terms are used to describe this phenomenon, such as comparison syndrome, comparisonitis, and obsessive comparison syndrome. But what does it actually mean?

“Comparison syndrome happens when job seekers excessively compare themselves to others regarding someone else’s skills, accomplishments, talents, aptitudes, or cultural fit, leading to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and self-doubt,” explains Wall.

However, it’s important to note that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. “Comparison syndrome makes people imagine that others are more qualified or better than they actually are, but in fact, they often are not. It’s just a way of projecting one’s own self-doubt onto someone else.”

It is easy to confuse comparison syndrome with imposter syndrome—yet despite both being centered around a common feeling of “not being good enough,” they differ in key ways. “Impostor syndrome involves persistent feelings of inadequacy and the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of competence or accomplishments,” Wall explains. “Social comparison is a broader concept involving the tendency to evaluate oneself in comparison to others in various life domains—for example, relationships, status, and wealth—-not just in job-related contexts.”

Comparison syndrome in job interviews

When it comes to job interviews, comparison syndrome can manifest itself in many different ways. “It can take a form of excessive self-doubt, over-preparation, and a heightened sense of anxiety, which collectively can detrimentally affect overall well-being and even make the interview experience more challenging and mentally taxing,” explains Wall.

Rutstein openly acknowledges grappling with comparison syndrome throughout her professional journey. “Throughout my entire career, I’ve had people tell me that comparison syndrome would eventually go away. But here I am over a decade later and I still struggle with it. I don’t think it’s going to disappear completely,” she admits.

Indeed, comparison syndrome can touch everyone, and for different reasons—be it age, background, or the industry one’s in. “Entry-level candidates with limited experience might feel particularly vulnerable to comparison syndrome as they lack extensive professional track records to bolster their confidence,” explains Wall. “Additionally, highly competitive industries like tech, medicine, or law can foster comparison syndrome, as individuals within these fields may ‘need’ to continuously outperform others to secure coveted positions,” she continues.

Having a career gap can also play into the negative comparative mentality. “If someone has been out of the workforce for an extended period of time, they may feel that they lack certain skills or experience that are currently valued,” explains Wall.

Breaking the vicious comparison cycle

Rutstein reflects on how, at its most debilitating, her comparison syndrome would prevent her from even considering certain opportunities. “I’ve held back from applying to jobs unless I felt vastly overqualified,’ she candidly admits. Wall describes this phenomenon as a self-feedback loop of doubt, negativity, and diminished performance. “Through comparison syndrome, one’s imagination creates one’s reality—which is a very vicious cycle,” she emphasizes.

Long-term comparison syndrome can have much more detrimental effects than we expect - which can influence career choices and, ultimately, job satisfaction. Wall gives an example: “If a parent or colleague or someone else of influence has a very successful career, an individual may choose to pursue their careers or follow in their footsteps in order to prove themselves worthy in some way. In the long term, this can adversely affect job satisfaction, because people may find themselves in positions chosen for their prestige or competitiveness rather than those that align with their authentic passions and values.”

To prevent comparison syndrome from gaining the upper hand in such a way, Rutstein actively works to reframe her comparative thoughts, channeling them into positive and reassuring perspectives. “I’m always finding new ways to manage and dampen my comparison syndrome. For example, maybe those feelings of inadequacy are just proof that I’m so passionate that nothing ever feels quite good enough. That way, I can keep myself motivated and always seek improvement.”

6 ways to overcome comparison syndrome

What are some other ways in which we can break the vicious comparison cycle? Here is Wall’s advice.

1. Recognize where the comparison is coming from.

The process of overcoming comparison syndrome should start with finding the root of your comparative thoughts. “Self-awareness is crucial in managing comparison syndrome effectively. Instead of fixating on others, focusing on self-improvement and personal growth can help redirect one’s mindset,” says Wall.

2. Let go of your thoughts and feelings

It’s more than okay to sit with your thoughts and “feel your feelings” for a while—but marinating in the distorted comparative mindset will never do you any good. “Simply acknowledging that everyone possesses strengths and weaknesses can alleviate the pressure of comparison, and practicing compassion can take it up even further,” explains Wall.

You can do it in whichever way speaks to you best, be it through mindfulness and relaxation techniques, deep breathing, journaling, or meditation. “At the end of the day, everyone is only one breath away from being more at ease emotionally and physically,” she says.

3. Implement positive self-affirmations.

Although this might feel difficult at first, try counteracting self-doubt with encouraged self-confidence. “Regularly remind yourself of your skills and accomplishments, even while doing mundane things. For example, putting positive affirmations on sticky notes and posting them around the house or in conspicuous places like the car or a gym bag so as to be continually reminded of [your] worth and capabilities,” says Wall. In the case of job interviews specifically, try to remind yourself that you got the interview invitation for a reason. “This was a huge mindset shift for me,” says Rutstein.

4. Find your unique strengths.

Apart from practicing positive affirmations, you can also seek more professional and tailored help towards self-confidence. “You can take assessments like CliftonStrengths, the Holland Code (RIASEC), or the Highlands Ability Battery to drill down to what is innately fabulous about you, and only you,” explains Wall. “By focusing on those unique strengths of yours, you’ll have less of a psychological need to focus on the value that others bring to the table.”

5. Reach out to others.

Dealing with comparison syndrome is a mental challenge, and seeking help from others can offer valuable guidance and emotional support. “Speaking with friends, mentors, or a therapist can offer guidance and emotional support, allowing candidates to address their comparison syndrome more effectively and to confidently navigate the job search process,” Wall explains.

Try speaking with those who know you best personally and professionally—maybe your parents and siblings, your college friends, or your work bestie—and voice all of your negative comparative thoughts. You’d be surprised to find out how much of your fears and worries are only in your head.

6. Self-pep-talk and visualization are key.

Help from those around you is important, but if you want to get out of a comparative mindset, you’ll need to give yourself some credit too! To do this, Rutstein, for example, keeps a list of all of her professional accomplishments. “Not only does that list help me prepare for the interview, but it also serves as a reminder of how qualified I am! Each bullet point is another reminder of why I’m the one that’s going to be hired. A list like that is a self-doubt killer’, she says proudly.

Another trick that can boost your confidence before going into a job interview is visualizing yourself already having that job you’re interviewing for. “I believe that you have to be able to see yourself doing the job and being the remarkable professional you want to be, to be able to achieve it. After all, ‘seeing is believing,’ as the old saying goes,” says Wall. Before entering the job interview, try visualizing yourself as a successful new hire already doing the job you’re interviewing for. At the end of the day, you were invited for that interview for a reason, right?

Instead of comparing, embrace your individuality

Comparison syndrome is a pervasive obstacle in the job interview process, affecting individuals across various industries and backgrounds. By recognizing its presence and implementing proactive strategies, you’ll be able to regain control and embrace your unique strengths and values. As Rutstein puts it, “The interview is just where you get to chat face-to-face and get to know each other on a human level.” Embrace your individuality and confidently show why you’re the perfect person for the role.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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