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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Wallwork

Comparing yourself to others

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Most of us at some point in our life will compare ourselves to other people. We compare looks, money, houses, cars, jobs, vacations, and people will even go as far as comparing partners, parents and pets.

There’s an unlimited number of things we can compare, and millions of people we can connect those comparisons to. Social media closes the gap even further, giving us access to people we wouldn’t meet or know about in real life, let alone knowing how many bitcoins they made last summer, how many boats or shoes they have or how glamorous their chihuahua is.

Have you noticed how you’ll always compare what’s great about that person with what you see as the least great thing about yourself? They have a Lamborghini, I have a clapped out Toyota. They have big voluminous hair, I have fine, straw-like scarecrow hair. This makes it an unfair comparison, and you’re going to lose every time. So why do we do it? Why do we compare ourselves to others when before we even do so, we know it’s not going to make us happier, it’s unlikely to help change that particular point of comparison (e.g. you’re unlikely to be able to go out and just buy a Lamborghini) so what’s the point of it all?

We can only define ourselves in relation to others. - Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed that people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves, often in comparison to others. In short, other people are a benchmark for us to use to help define how well we’re doing and who we are.

This can go both ways; upward social comparison sees us comparing ourselves with people we think are better than us.

Downward social comparison makes us feel more secure in our position as we compare ourselves with those we see as worse off than us.

Some comparisons might make you feel more confident about yourself and your abilities whilst some may make you feel less secure in yourself.

However, it’s not always a negative thing to compare yourself to others. If you compare yourself to a colleague for example, you are either doing it to boost your self-esteem e.g. I’m more popular than Doug in Accounting, or, you’re comparing your work and your skillset with Doug as a self-evaluation tool. Self-evaluation is critical to our development both in and out of the workplace. Comparing yourself with others in this context focusses on learning and improving, not finding fault in the person and boosting your self-worth.

Another important thing to note, is that when you compare yourself to others, the closer you are (as defined by social status, achievements, looks etc.) the more likely you are to use them as a benchmark. If you’re a fun-runner for example, you’re more likely to compare yourself to someone from your local running club than you are to Mo Farah. This is because the differences are smaller and you see any improvement that you’d have to make to be more achievable.

Festinger also noted that the more importance we place on a group of people, the more likely we are to compare ourselves to them. This explains why there may be groups of people where you don’t care what they think of you, and why there are other groups of people that you want to do as well as or fit in with.

The other news is that when we’re comparing ourselves with others, we’re not really comparing ourselves from scratch. We’ve been comparing ourselves with others since we were children, and this has given us pretty concrete ideas about what and who we are. So, when you’re comparing your dance capabilities with someone else, what you’re really doing is looking for information within that person that supports your pre-existing idea that you’re an excellent dancer. This works in a negative context too; if you think you’re an awful dancer, it won’t take much to compare yourself to others and say ‘I’m not as good at dancing as they are’ (validating your beliefs), or compare yourself to another even worse dancer, ‘Oh well at least I’m not as bad as them’, (again, validating where you’d already decided you stood on the dance pecking order).

This is partially why social media has such a big impact on our social comparison; people are only showing you what they want to show you, so you’re going to face way more ‘I’m a terrible dancer in comparison to them’ posts, than you are the other way around. You might ask why we are not willing to change this pre-existing perception of ourselves, and the answer is quite simply: because we don’t really want to rock the boat. Imagine someone who thinks they’re the perfect dancer, they don’t want to hear that they’ve actually still got a long way to go. If someone thinks they’re successful in business, they don’t want to see that actually they’re quite far down the corporate hierarchy. This works in the negative too; someone who has always been lonely and unable to find a partner doesn’t want to address that actually they, not pre-ordained fate, are responsible for their relationships, or lack of. We think we know who we are, and we’ll go a long way to back that up through social comparison, even if it’s not in our best interests.

In conclusion, comparing yourself with others rarely makes you feel happier or more successful unless you’re comparing yourself with someone you see as ‘lesser’; which is a pretty ugly trait to have. Not only that, but it’s unlikely to feed the ego for very long and you’ll soon find yourself belittling others more and more to prop up your self-worth. It’s all about your motivations; if your comparisons are to help you improve and learn and develop, it’s positive for you to look at others as a realistic benchmark.

We spend an awful lot of time making comparisons for feedback about ourselves, when the truth is, we’ve already made up our minds.

How to stop.

One of the first things, which you’ve achieved today, is simply understanding how social comparison works, in order to get in front of it and recognise what your brain is doing the next time a social comparison arises.

The next biggest thing you can do to stop allowing comparisons to rule your life is: take away the metrics. The most common things that people compare are almost always measurable. Stop comparing measurable things that don’t actually add up to anything. Start comparing immeasurable qualities such as; love, family, friendships, humour, honesty, empathy.

On top of that, start using yourself as the benchmark. You will grow and learn from improving on your own achievements, not anyone else’s.

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