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)