On Comparing Ourselves To Others

I can’t believe I haven’t done a post on this topic, but after getting the idea and then checking, the answer is no, I have not. So it’s about time! I would argue that comparing ourselves to others is innate and that we do it all the time, whether just fleetingly and harmlessly, perhaps to make ourselves realise we are in fact good at what we do, or that we are so very fortunate in our lifestyle and relationships, or more destructively, where our peace of mind is blown apart and we are rendered upset and deflated by comparing ourselves negatively with respect to those exact same category of life conditions, where we are looking much worse off in relation to the ‘other’. But what’s going on? Why do we do it? And with social media peppered with opportunities for comparing our lives to others, opportunities which are based on what is going well for others in their lives, which are often presented like candy in a sweet shop with memes to match, how are we supposed to handle the comparison game? Now, I do feel I’ve grown as a person in many respects, but I have to acknowledge comparison creeps into my creative life and I don’t like it at all. So taking into account my personal belief that comparison has got to be some petty, unsavoury aspect that is in our very psyche, I’ve just been searching for a concrete psychological reason as to why we do it, and I’ve found a man called Festinger, who wrote about it in 1954, where ‘social comparison theory’ was born.

But just before I get onto the theory, let’s have a think about how long we have probably been playing the comparison game. When I was a little girl, I remember my mother comparing herself unfavourably to a friend of hers – a mother of three, who had an immaculate house, ‘perfect’ children and a ‘perfect’ husband. But my mother was a part-time teacher, this lady was not. This lady didn’t choose to formally work after she got married and had plenty of time to  devote to housework and whatever else she could find time for. Did my mother take this crucial difference into account? No. And what did I pick up on? As a child my mother inadvertently taught me about how people compare themselves to others to evaluate themselves, and in my mother’s case it was usually negatively. My father refused to do it, I think, unless my mother triggered it off in him. I remember children at school comparing the jobs their fathers did, where we were impressed by the doctors, but not so much by the builders. Comparing ourselves with others has been socially inbred at home and in the outside world. There was and is no escape.

At school, comparing oneself with others in the class helped align ourselves into some kind of intelligence pecking order, from where we navigated our way into higher education, comparing our grades to others’ grades, then onwards, ever onwards, to comparing the jobs we managed to get to the ones our peers achieved, the spouses or partners we became attached to, the house we lived in, the area we lived in, the house and area we live in now, comparing our children in turn and their intelligence levels, their special gifts…on and on, ad nauseam. We compare our weight to others to decide how ‘fat’ or ‘slim’ we are, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive, our pension plans, our physical fitness, our mental health – are we better off, or are we worse? We compare ourselves upwards and downwards to reach dubious evaluations.

And how do creative people get on with comparing their work to others? Their writing, their art, their craft? We do this here too, and it can be more harmful because we are deriving our life meaning from our creative work. A lot is at stake here. This is a very vulnerable area to mess around with by playing the comparison game like a calculated chess game or a card game of Snap. Whenever we read another writer’s book, visit another writer’s blog or website, follow a writer or an artist on twitter or facebook, we compare our work and our progress.

That artist’s work is amazing! So detailed! I could never paint like that!

Jeez, that painting’s simply awful – it’s a mess. Who are they trying to kid?

 Look. That writer has written a book a year for the last  five years. And they are all bestsellers too. How did they manage that? I could never imagine doing that – then our defences attempt to rescue us by thinking – the quality just can’t be there. So if that’s what it takes, I don’t  want to be like them, thank you.

How did this book ever get published? It’s terrible!

Oh my God, this writing is just amazing! I’ll never be as good as this.

I just can’t write the amount real writers are supposed to write per day. I’m useless.

And then there’s the comparison of the level of success of other creatives.

They look so successful. How did they get there?

They are ‘making it’ with their special creative passion, you aren’t. There is the inevitable envy, jealousy, even if it’s only fleeting, a knee jerk reaction where you wrestle the ever so familiar feelings. And we rarely conceive for one minute that others may actually be seeing us in a more positive light, and be jealous of us. And if someone ever mentioned this, you’d probably think, If only they knew the truth. They are really wasting their time being jealous of me. We compare upwards and downwards to evaluate. On social media, people, including ourselves, present their best faces, their best lives, because that is what everyone feels they have to do. No-one is allowed to be miserable, depressed, unsuccessful. All of this best foot forward, present the best, always the best, and you’ve got to keep it up, mind you. A shallow never-ending race to a non-existent finishing line. And does it actually help us believe more in ourselves, have more faith in our creative work – the two essential attributes that count more than anything else?

Over to the theory now.

According to social psychologist, Leon Festinger, we need to compare ourselves in relation to someone else to define ourselves. It’s the only way we can define ourselves. We evaluate our opinions and abilities by comparing them to others in order to reduce uncertainty and to learn how to define our very self.

Social comparison theory states that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others who they perceive as somehow faring better or worse. People sometimes compare themselves to others as a way of fostering self-improvement, self-motivation, and a positive self-image. As a result, humans are constantly evaluating themselves and others across a variety of domains, such as attractiveness, wealth, intelligence and success. These evaluations can also promote judgmental, biased, and overly competitive or superior attitudes. Most people have the social skills and impulse control to keep envy and standards for social comparison quiet, but someone’s true feelings may come out in other ways. Some research shows that people who regularly compare themselves to others often experience negative feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt, and remorse, and engage in destructive behaviours.

 People often compare themselves to others who share similar attributes. These comparisons can sometimes be healthy measures of development, such as a child reaching certain growth milestones at the same time as their peers. However, many people make unreasonable comparisons to others who have achieved at unusually high levels, causing them a great deal of pain and anxiety about their own progress in life. The fascination with celebrity culture and prevalence of social media has only exacerbated the problem of social comparison, exposing people to endless potential comparisons, many of whom appear perfect online. 

We do it for self-evaluation, but also for self-enhancement. Here is a nice exploration by Jordan Harbinger of these two functions we frequently seesaw between. (Jordan’s article is the best I came across on the comparison game and well worth a read).

 As long as self-enhancement is your goal, then comparing yourself to other people will always make you miserable. Either your comparison will artificially boost your ego, temporarily making you feel superior to the people you’re comparing yourself to, or your comparison will unearth the vulnerabilities you might not want to face, leaving you exposed to familiar feelings of anger, envy, and shame.

Is it really so bad to compare ourselves to other people?

The answer is: it depends.

If we’re comparing ourselves for self-assessment, then wondering how we stack up is natural, healthy, and often very helpful. I’d even argue that it’s necessary. But if we’re comparing ourselves for self-enhancement, then this process can quickly become obsessive, toxic, and often very confusing. The problem is that when we compare ourselves, we’re often doing both simultaneously, without even realizing it. And oftentimes, we think we’re trying to assess ourselves when we’re actually trying to enhance ourselves — which is how we can justify this destructive habit under the guise of “doing our research.”

The paradox is that we need to study other people in order to measure our progress. But by measuring our progress, we often end up inflating ourselves, tearing ourselves down, or toggling between one or the other — often at the expense of the people we’re comparing ourselves to. And those people, in turn, are almost certainly doing the exact same thing with us. And because no one talks about it, we don’t realize that we’re all comparing ourselves to one another in a bizarre, unstable, often toxic hall of mirrors. No wonder all this comparison makes us miserable!

And I expect there is much misery abounding. And even if the argument can be made that if we ensure we make downward comparisons, that make us feel better, instead of upward comparisons that can make us feel like failures, then all will be well. But who actually wants to live like that? I know I don’t.

So seeing how the comparison game is innate and inevitable, how can we handle it?

1. My first thought would be simply to recognise when you are getting sucked into it. Right there and then, ask yourself what insecurity button is being pressed right now. Identify it, try to acknowledge it, give it a nod, then accept it fully as being part of you. Whatever it is, know that it is totally natural, and then allow yourself to move on past it and switch your focus to something more constructive.

2. Recognise you are a mix of positive and negative vibes and feelings. Yin and Yang. This is what makes us human. Jealousy of someone’s success is as natural as feeling joyful for someone, depending on the circumstances and the person,  but you can’t force jealousy into joy through will alone. It is your own drive, your own passion and determination which can make you vulnerable to jealousy, just as it is that same will and passion that can make you love what someone has achieved and you can’t wait to tell them how they have moved you. Two sides of the same coin. Just move on through.

3. Appreciate your own skills and abilities that are uniquely yours. Ask yourself what can be achieved by trying to compare these with someone else’s unique skills and abilities? It’s  like trying to compare apples with oranges. And you can only ever compare what’s on the outside, you haven’t a clue what’s on someone else’s inside.

4. Count your own blessings. Not to feel superior or distinctly better off than someone else, but simply to appreciate what or who you do have in your life. The more you appreciate what you do have, who you are, the less likely you are to be hurt by comparisons when you inevitably make them.

5. Dump perfection. There is no such thing. Both for you, or anyone else.

6. Support others when you see them struggling –  focus on them instead of yourself. That way, you’re maintaining your perspective and doing something good, something that really matters.

7. This is a biggie. Remember ‘the J word’ – as I heard ‘journey’ described on television the other day. Yes, it’s an over-used concept perhaps, but no less true because of it. All life really is, is a journey we’re on for a limited period of time. From day to day, your unique journey unfolds. It is yours, no-one else’s.  What is the point of comparing it to someone else’s? Theirs is their own. Yours is yours. Make sure you are making the best job you can of yours.

8. And finally, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt. So please work at not stealing away your own joy through the comparison game. And know that we really are all in this together.

(pic courtesy of pixabay)


About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
This entry was posted in On social media, On The Creative Life, Pyschology, wellbeing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to On Comparing Ourselves To Others

  1. Libby Sommer says:

    great post. lots for us to ponder. i especially relate to ‘dump perfection’. it’s a killer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also meant to say I read about a newish research study that found this: those who were programmed to compare their fitness with others’ before working out gained less from their session than a control group. It’s powerful stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are right, we don’t talk about this. So thanks Lynne: I am going to discuss this with one of my enormously successful and famous (and wise) friends. I am over the moon about her latest prize but not immune from flashes of comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      You’ve just made me smile, Rachel. This ‘predicament’ is similar to what Sylvia was saying about how artists can be too. And I can add myself to this plight. I do wish there was more openness about this, we’d all feel so much better!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a good post Lynne and I hate to admit it but I’m still playing the comparing game, using others as the benchmark of my success and feeling down when they soar upwards which makes it harder when I like the person and the persons work. I found your links very useful too. Imagining how it feels to be successful, imagining other people’s lives, imagining the past. None of it real and all of it a distraction from being in the moment and creating for creating sake. Found reading the replies and your comments useful too. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks, Sylvia, that means a great deal! I think we all do the comparing whether we admit it to ourselves or not. I’ve done it too and will no doubt continue to do so, but I’m going to try watching for it and dismissing it as best I can. And yes, it’s all stories we make up or imagine about other people’s lives at the end of the day. The article I linked too explained it all very well for me and I’m so pleased you took the time to read it too. Here’s to being our own moderators with the comparison game! :>)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I agree that comparison by creatives against other creatives can be so harmful. We are so protective of our work, our thoughts, that comparing them to others can halt the creative process. We are all different and do things in a variety of ways, so of course there are different outcomes. There are writers better than me, but that is of no concern to me. I just want to keep improving and for each essay, article, or story that I write to be the best that it can be. I especially like your takeaway points at the end.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Many thanks, Cheryl! Comparing is so very destructive to the creative process – that is probably the most harmful aspect for us. We just can’t afford to let it affect us or our work. In the past, before social media, I think it must have been easier not to compare, but now we have to be vigilant! I’m so pleased you liked the take home points. I forced myself to think about them, without comparing the ideas to someone else’s, and I’m happy with what I came up with. So you telling me this is much appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is great advice, Lynne. I’ve fallen into the comparison trap so many times in my life. Interestingly I feel better since I stopped entering writing contests. I decided just to let my writing be what it is, instead of rating it as “better” or “worse” than someone else’s.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      I’ve fallen into it too, Catherine, in so many ways. And I don’t enter writing contests anymore either. I was encouraged to by my OU writing tutor, for my writers CV, that along with submitting stories to ‘notable’ literay magazines. But now it’s a case of – to hell with the writers CV! Thanks for sharing :>)


  7. Sumi Singh Writes says:

    Such a good post and so valuable too! I’ve played the comparison game more often than not and it only led to unhappiness. Now in my craft, I see it happening too. The constant thinking I won’t amount to success as I don’t write full-time. A writer even had the audacity to ask me whether “writing was a hobby?” I was so upset, because I know it’s not. I have my own journey, it may not be like others wish it to be, but I’m not here to make them happy, I’m here to pursue my dreams in the limited time I have to do so.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Hi Sumi, I’ve played it too, and it does indeed lead to unhappiness, sometimes misery. I did it with my art, and when I took up writing I was only too aware that I was setting myself up for it to happen all over again – and of course it did, and that’s why I wanted to try to get a handle on it and why I wrote this post. As you say, this is our life we’re talking about, and it is indeed limited. We just can’t afford to spend time doing the comparing. Social media makes it so easy to get into! As for writing being a supposed hobby, for me it’s an oxymoron – writing is so difficult no one would choose to do it as a hobby if they are putting their all into it. Another lady writer I’ve been in contact with told me it was assumed to be a hobby by a woman aquaintance of hers, and she was so upset she decided later to clarify with this person that was NOT a hobby. Somehow the fact that it was a woman assuming this, made it worse, I think. We women have to empower each other. Many thanks for sharing, Sumi!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I was feeling quite troubled as I read the early part of this post Lynne, probably because I immediately start remembering my very young self and my older self working with women of all ages who constantly compared themselves to others with the sole aim of consolidating the belief that their lives were no good, they were no good and what’s more nothing good would ever happen to them. So much in social media is aimed at ensuring this self destructive process continues I think. Of course as I read to your numbered points at the end of the post all was redeemed 🙂 The key of course lies in gratitude and self knowledge and an understanding that each life is unique, a journey of discovery and a story worth knowing.

    I’m thinking out loud now and wondering if the judgement part of this process leads at it’s two extremes to suicidal depression – I’m no good, life is no good and I might as well end it now – to the self-aggrandising, despotic, narcissistic outlook of those who, for the same reasons, need to boost themselves and see themselves as superior to all others. One is feminine, the other masculine – both have the same root cause. Both can lead to ruined lives. Does that make sense? Building self esteem and understanding how to control our own inherited thought processes are skills we could do with being taught somewhere in the educational curriculum I think….. I love how your posts always seem to inspire me to a bit of early morning, heavy duty thinking Lynne 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you so much for sharing, Pauline. I felt I had to really explore this topic, so heavy duty it certainly is! You are so right about the two extremes, and I am also certain you are right about the depression on the one hand versus the self-aggrandising on the other, through comparing up or down, we can add feelings of failure or success here too. It can take years to see how destructive all this is. It is so insidious, we really have to look after ourselves! There should be something on the curriculum entitled ‘the school of life’ on how to handle these erroneous thought processes that we can spend so much or our lives being bogged down with. Hope you have a lovely day, Pauline. And just to let you know I am now on my second type of granny square, with a great teacher lady (she’s amazing as a teacher!) and won’t be comparing my skills to anyone elses! Cheers, Pauline :>)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha-ha! So good to hear that last bit Lynne! I think it is just wonderful to see how a new crafter makes advances with everything they make. My daughter who is new to knitting was showing me her latest project today and we were talking about how much more quickly she is grasping new stitches and new concepts as she keeps on working. Her tension is impeccable and I noted that it took me years to get a handle on that skill 🙂 We all advance at different rates we all have different strengths and talents – it’s what makes the world such an amazing place 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • lynnefisher says:

        Exactly, Pauline! And it’s so funny how when we accomplish something we want to share it. It’s nothing more than simple pleasure in an achievment – and makes for special moments like with your daughter. Just lovely!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ooops, and I was going to say it’s wonderful to have a great teacher to help you along learning new stitches – that is really good news, it beats a virtual one I’m sure!

        Liked by 1 person

      • lynnefisher says:

        I wanted to give her a hug and tell her what a great teacher she is! She explains why she is doing what she is, and shows the stitches slowly and described them well. I will be giving her some great feedback!

        Liked by 1 person

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