We all do it.
We see our friends’ vacation pictures on Facebook and suddenly feel worse about our own travels. Instead of celebrating our promotion, we focus on how we still don’t make as much as the guy down the street. We enjoy our home renovation until we enter a more upscale home, at which point we become aware of all the areas where ours is lacking. We find confidence in our new athletic achievement until we happen to catch a glimpse of someone in the mirror who just happens to be a little stronger, a little leaner, a little younger.
Why is it that comparison has such a propensity for bringing us down?
1 – Comparison Takes You Out of the Moment
Somebody walks up to you and unexpectedly hands you a check for $1,000. After a few moments of confusion and disbelief, the excitement sets in and you begin daydreaming about how you might spend your windfall. And then you notice that the stranger next to you also received a surprise check. For $5,000.
Instantly, you’re pulled from your fantasies. Your pleasant daydreams are replaced with irritation at receiving the lesser amount. Instead of thinking about your gains, you’re focusing on your (entirely imaginary) “loss” of $4,000.
2 – Comparison Can Lead to Demotivation
You vow to get in shape this year. You start by creating a Pinterest “motivational” fitness boards that universally feature people in the top 1% of physiques. You intend for it to inspire you to diet just a little more and to run just a little further.
Instead, the effect is the opposite. When, after months of dedicated diet and exercise, you feel defeated when the reflection in the mirror is still light years away from that of the fitness model. Believing you’ll never get there, you give up.
3 – Comparison Compares Internal to External
You’re alone on a Friday evening. Even though the thought of dining alone in public horrifies you, you summon the nerve to go out because you’re craving your favorite dish at the restaurant down the street. While eating your dinner, you spot another solo diner. Only this one appears confident and at ease with being alone.
“Why can’t I be confident by myself like that person?” you ask yourself, feeling even more awkward than before. Meanwhile, the solo diner has spotted you and is simultaneously envying your outward poise in dining alone.
4 – Comparison Leads to False Beliefs Based on Incomplete Information
Your friends seem to lead the perfect lives. According to the pictures they share on social media, their homes are always organized, their kids are always smiling, the vacations are epic and the marriages are perfect.
Behind the scenes, there’s a different story. The camera only comes out when the house is clean and the angles of the shots are carefully selected. For every one picture of smiling kids, ten more – with frowns, screams and frustrated expressions – have been deleted. The vacations had their idyllic moments and those are the ones selected to share. And the marriage, like all marriages, has its good moments and its hard ones.
5 – Comparison Prompts Cross Examination of Decisions
When it came to selecting a career, you left no stone unturned. You carefully inventoried your skills and interests. You calculated the income you needed to support the lifestyle you wanted and analyzed the demands of the job compared to the role you wanted it to play in your life.
And by all accounts, you made a good decision. You’re successful, you’re happy and you’re able to afford the life you want. And then you make a new friend who works in an entirely different – and to you, exotic, field. And you start to wonder if you made the right choice all those years ago.
6 – Comparison Lowers Satisfaction
You’ve been studying really hard the entire semester. When you see the “A” printed on the top of your test, you think, “Finally, all that hard work has paid off.” You’re feeling good about your effort, your progress and your standing in the class.
And then you happen to see the “A+” on the paper handed back to the person next to you. “I’m so stupid,” you think. “I shouldn’t even be in this program.”
7 – Comparison Contributes to F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out)
It’s finally happening. You’ve scrimped and saved for two years to afford this trip to Hawaii and you’re on your way. Once you settle in to your hotel, you fire up the Wi Fi and see that your friends are having brunch together.
Suddenly, you question your decision. Hawaii is great, but what might you be missing back home. For the next week, you find that thoughts of what you may be missing out on keep intruding on your vacation.
8 – Comparison Contributes to Anxiety
Your partner got a new coworker recently. An opposite sex coworker. At first, you didn’t think much of it. And then you happened to see a picture. And then you heard about some of the new hire’s accomplishments.
And now you’re worried as you line your traits up against theirs and you find yourself lacking. You begin to question what your partner sees in you and you begin to question their interactions with their workmate.
9 – Comparison Increases Loneliness
You’re having a good day and decide to continue it by treating yourself to a rare pricey latte. While waiting for your drink, you engage in a little harmless people watching.
Only it turns out to not be so harmless. As your eye roves the patrons, you subconsciously compare something that you’re insecure about (your hair, your weight, your wardrobe) to that of another person. And as you tabulate these juxtapositions, you begin to feel as though you no longer belong.
If comparison makes us feel worse, why do we do it?
I tease my students about not being the “slowest zebra” to encourage them to stay focused on their work. And it’s effective. They don’t want to be the outlier, the one left behind and in danger of being eaten by the watchful lion.
We have evolved to constantly question and gauge our status. We want and even need to know where we fit within the group.
When humans lived in smaller social groups, this comparison was relatively harmless. Maybe you’re the worst in the village at collecting water but you can feel confident in being the best hunter.
Yet in the modern world, there is no limit to the number of people we can compare ourselves to. And not just in an abstract, yeah I know Billy makes more money than me way, but in an in-your-face with never-ending pictures and video way on our devices.
And here’s where biology has become cruel. We are rewarded with a little squirt of dopamine for each image we view or each status we read. Even though we feel worse after our social media survey.
We are literally rewarded for doing something that makes us feel worse.
Is comparison ever advantageous?
I teach accelerated math. As in the smart kids that are working a couple grade levels ahead of the average student. Throughout the year, they are only able to compare themselves to other students in their class. And so they can easily become down on themselves when they struggle on an Algebra II assignment. In 7th grade.
In preparation for the state tests, I lowered the rigor and brought in on-level materials. I loved seeing my “struggling” students light up when they realized how easy the grade level math was. By comparing themselves to the larger group, they realized where they really stand.
The opposite can also hold true. When you’re the big fish in a small pond, it’s easy to feel over-confident. And once you’re introduced to larger waters, the shock can be overwhelming. In my mind, this is one of the (few) benefits of large-scale standardized testing – you get an idea of where you (or your children) stand.
Comparison can also serve to highlight gaps or areas of need in your own life. I often pay attention to when feelings of envy rear their ugly head. Then I dig into the underlying reasons. And then I do something about it.
For example, I realized that I was having major jealousy when I saw or read about vacation trips. And once I made the down payment for my fall trip to Costa Rica, the need to compare and the bitter feelings around it disappeared.
Comparison, when approached carefully and mindfully, can also lead to motivation. Rather than seeking out those who are so far from you as to be in another category altogether, look for mentors that are a few steps ahead.
How can I keep comparison from stealing my joy?
Think of comparison like desert, not like the vegetables. It’s best to indulge only occasionally and consciously.
When comparing yourself to others, ensure that you’re only comparing your external to their external. When we compare our internal dialogue to what we can see in someone else, we are using a false metric.
Rather than look to those who are at the pinnacle of where you want to be, look for those whose story you can identify with. It’s a more realistic comparison and one that can give you useful information.
Remember that when the pool is large enough, there will always be those who are better than you in some way. When you’re feel despondent about your rank on one characteristic, make the effort to note an area where you excel.
And finally, be wary of the comparison rabbit-hole of social media. Pay attention to your mood before and after time spent online. If you’re feeling worse, comparison (even if it’s done subconsicously) may be the root cause.
Take a breather. Take a step back.
Remember that others don’t change who you are.
And take back your joy.