The danger of comparing ourselves to others — and how to stop


August 16, 2013
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Rachel’s taking a late lunch break today, so she sits in the cafeteria alone. She whips out her phone to look preoccupied and not like some loner sadly eating by herself. While taking bites of her salad, she logs onto Facebook to check what she’s missed in the last four hours. The first thing she sees is a gorgeous woman in a jaw-dropping summer dress. The caption reads, “Enjoying the Caribbean with my new hubby!” Normally, Rachel would mindlessly scroll on, but she’s stunned:

My god, is that Leslie? she thinks. She’s changed so much since high school! She must have lost 30 pounds… And here I am eating salads just trying to lose five. I can’t believe she’s honeymooning in the Caribbean. She was always so smart in school; she must be filthy rich now. And she’s married too! I’m just trying to find one guy in this world who might actually find me attractive… And ugh, look at all these likes. No one even cares about my Facebook or what I do. My life is so much more pathetic and boring.  

This scenario isn’t a true story, but it is the truth for many of us. It’s human nature to compare. It helps us orient ourselves in the world, add context, and communicate better. The dark side emerges when we use others as a mirror or benchmark for what we think our life should be. And we all do it all the time.

Only the best. Entire industries are built on the premise that we want things with high prestige. It might be the most fuel-efficient car, or a haute couture dress, or the softest toilet tissue on the market. By owning these items, it proves that we are, in some way, better. And when we don’t own them, then we feel that we are, in some way, worse. But “things” are just one way we compare and lambast ourselves.

Performance anxiety. School is a breeding ground for who’s-better-at-what, based on grades. In adulthood, grades transform into jobs: our titles, what we accomplish, where we sit, how much we make. There’s an inherent competition that can lead to a “it’s just business” approach, which grants permission to do whatever it takes to get ahead. Then we’re all miserable.

You’ve got to have friends. Two of the most dreaded comparison questions — Are you married? Do you have children? — were recently joined by a vicious third: How many friends do you have on Facebook? We’re fascinated by whose love and social life is flourishing. And now, thanks to social media, many of us suffer from FOMO — the fear of missing out. We check status updates, who’s checked into what locations, and who likes whose posts. We want to make sure our lives appear just as fun and fulfilling now that they’re more openly shared.

The looks category. Appearance is one of the easiest comparisons we make. All you have to do is see someone for a judgment to form: I wish my hair were as long as hers. I feel like a fool in this gym next to these ripped guys. Then there are the professionally styled and heavily Photoshopped celebrities in the media that make us think perfection is achievable, even though it isn’t.

But what about me? The undeserved comparison can be an especially bitter pill, when we feel like someone else has gotten something unfairly or too easily. Your person of comparison might be the guy at work who gets away with so much time off. Or it’s your sibling, who you see as your parents’ favorite. Or that person who’s monopolizing your best friend’s time. It makes us feel like we’re taken for granted.

What comparison does to us
In its purest form, comparing ourselves to others can motivate us to improve. We may notice that the company superstar always makes a point of asking for clarification when given an assignment, so we realize it might be a good idea if we did that too. Positive observation, helpful action.

The negativity begins when we start pinning our happiness with ourselves on how we measure up to others. In the case of Rachel, our anti-heroine at the start of this story, her shock at the obvious success of her former classmate Leslie unleashed jealousy, insecurity, and self-loathing. This can easily lead to a habit of complaining about herself or others. Lack of motivation to lose five pounds. Temptation to gossip about Leslie’s new husband. And that’s just unfair…to Rachel.

Rachel has no idea what the context is around Leslie’s photo on Facebook. So without that backstory, she sees Leslie’s life as easier and better. She’s stuck believing that hers is a mediocre existence.

So why don’t we just stop?
Well, our brains have a natural tendency to make comparisons as a system of developing logic and reasoning. And all the ways we compare ourselves to others are the same ways we find value in our lives. The answer isn’t to stop making comparisons, but to change the object of comparison to ourselves. That bears repeating: Measure yourself against yourself.

Here are three questions to help you redirect your thoughts away from what other people are doing. When you catch yourself feeling low because someone else appears to be riding high, ask:

Is it important to me?
Do you really want a Porsche, or do you want one because your neighbor with the lead foot and big house has one? The next time you’re longing for an extravagance, ask yourself: Why do I want it? Am I seeking status or approval? Does it match who I am as a person? Maybe the answer is yes, but maybe it isn’t.

Where do I want to go?
We all have a plan for ourselves. It helps us prioritize where we spend our money, our time, and our attention. As hard as it may be to see a friend’s Tweets about all the new restaurants she’s going to, remind yourself that if you spent your free time hobnobbing with her, you wouldn’t have time to work on the new store you plan to open next summer.

How far have I come?
This is a great question! It gives us perspective on how much we’ve achieved (or not). Any resulting emotions are completely valid because they relate to ourselves. Your friend who made her first million at age 30 — wish her well, and stop worrying about it. It has no bearing on your history of accomplishments. Besides, you probably wouldn’t want to do what she did to earn it, or you’d have done it already.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #9: How to stop comparing yourself to others

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Last Week: How to break the negativity loop: A true story of prison and redemption

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