The case for not comparing yourself to others has been taken too far. It’s common sense now, reiterated over and over again, that to be a healthy individual, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. One quick search and I came across the following articles from major blogs:
Via Mind Body Green – it’s not good because we don’t have accurate information
But people don’t put their tear explosions on Instagram — not because they’re trying to hide something (although of course that happens sometimes) — but because it’s human nature to want to put your best foot forward.
Via Becoming Minimalist – it’s just bad for you
Indeed, the negative effects of comparisons are wide and far-reaching. Likely, you have experienced (or are experiencing) many of them first-hand in your life as well.
Via Tiny Buddha – it’s just bad for you
The thing about comparison is that there is never a win. How often do we compare ourselves with someone less fortunate than us and consider ourselves blessed? More often, we compare ourselves with someone who we perceive as being, having, or doing more.
Via Zen Habits – it’s just bad for you
… the comparisons led to feeling really bad about ourselves or others. This is heartbreaking, because we are good people, and so are they.
Via The Positivity Blog – it’s just bad for you
One of the most common and destructive daily habit is to constantly compare your life and yourself to other people and their lives.
Via the Huffington Post – you can’t win
If comparing is how you evaluate your worth, you will always be losing.
The Case for Comparison
It’s clear that new-age self-help experts advocate for the complete cessation of comparison between you and others. But before making any value judgments on the futility of comparison, shouldn’t we ask why we’re comparing ourselves to other people in the first place?
One thing we know is that we all do it. The desire (or automatic response) to compare ourselves to others is something inherent in our psyche. Comparing ourselves to others is as human as is getting angry or sad. Therefore, since we have it, it must serve some purpose, and we should be able to derive some tangible benefit from its use.
So, why do we have the natural urge to compare ourselves to others?
Via The NY Times
“Comparison is rife with danger, but it’s understandable why we do it,” said Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist. “We’re human beings and we naturally seek information.”
The simple answer is just that. We need to navigate ourselves in this world, and through comparison, we’re able to identify where we aren’t doing well. In short, through comparison, we’re able to learn.
When I was growing up I used to play basketball. And many statistics used to be recorded during games. Shots attempted, shots made, assists, steals, turnovers, etc. After each game, all the players could see everybody’s stats and compare them. We could also see our stats from the previous games, so we could compare our performance over time and in relation to our teammates.
Now, you could say that each player’s statistics should have remained private, to avoid embarrassing anybody. And you could also say that it’s only necessary for a player to see his own stats in order to improve. Why not just compare your latest performance against your previous performance and be done with it? Go for your own personal record (PR) and forget about everyone else!
But any high-performance athlete would tell you otherwise. They want to see how their peers are performing.
There’s only so much you can do alone. If you only compared yourself to your past performances you could see improvement over time, and you may feel great about yourself. But, if you wanted to see dramatic improvement, then you would want to know exactly what that other guy was doing when he scored twice as many points as you. Maybe he has better technique. Maybe he’s taking shots closer to the basket. Maybe he’s in better physical shape. You want to know what’s working for him so you can do the same.
This is why we hire coaches and consultants. These people are hired to be experts, to understand what’s working, and guide us towards success. It’s their job to compare the winners vs the losers in the field, and we pay them to teach us to be successful. Nobody is going to hire a coach that hasn’t studied the differences between successful people and unsuccessful people.
A comparison is a learning tool.
A second example. Say I observe in the world and believe that some guy is much better than I am when it comes to maintaining friendships. I see him with lots of friends, and his phone is always ringing. What’s he doing that I’m not in order to be so socially adept? If I compare his actions to mine I’ll probably pick up a few behaviors that would help me in my own relationships. Need Relationship Advice? Yes! Visit Hackrelation.com
There’s a reason why successful people are successful, and if you never take the time to learn the tricks of the trade then you’re doing yourself a disservice. You’re cutting your potential short.
Poor Self-Esteem + Comparison = Depression Death Spiral
There’s a reason why there’s a cult around not comparing yourself to others. It’s because we can’t handle it. Our self-esteem is too low.
We’re too insecure with ourselves. We don’t hold ourselves in high enough regard to be okay with someone else being better. We can’t celebrate someone else’s success without feeling bad about ourselves. We can’t confront ourselves, that the reason we are unhappy, lonely, or unfulfilled is that we made mistakes, or weren’t willing to take the necessary risk. We don’t respect ourselves to believe that we too can also do what that other person has done.
When we don’t compare ourselves to others, we give ourselves an easy way out. Just “be the best version of yourself.” Don’t try to reach beyond yourself. Don’t push yourself. Don’t set yourself up for the possibility that you may not make it.
If we don’t look to others, and say to ourselves, “I want that too,” then we’ll never be disappointed. And then the cycle repeats itself, because later on when I see others doing what I want to do, I just comfort myself though my internal voice – “it’s not good to compare yourself to others.”
However, if you’re the type of person to hold yourself in high regard, the type of person who believes that you can learn what others have learned before, then you will actively look for those who can teach you, and teachers should be by definition better than you.
The issue of not comparing yourself to others is deeply problematic because it’s rooted in our self-esteem. We’re hypersensitive to those things that we think define us. Today, those things are primarily material. Net worth, external success through business or professional accolades, or some concept of beauty.
The common thing among these hot topic issues, where we don’t like to compare ourselves to others, always comes back to self-identification. When you believe that your value as a person is defined by anything external to you, that’s where you run into trouble. And the only reason you equate anything external to your value as a person is that you lack proper self-esteem.
If we cannot separate the results we’ve achieved in our lives thus far, with the inherent human value we ascribe to ourselves, then we cannot compare ourselves to others. Why? Because there’s always someone better than us at everything. But for the learner, and the person who has the courage to grow, this is a beautiful thing, because it means that there’s always room to grow and improve.
If we have drivers to do certain things in our lives, then we need to celebrate the fact that we have the ability to continually get better, further our expertise, and move closer and closer to mastery.
But we can’t ever get there if we don’t know where to start. And we know where to start when we compare ourselves to others.
Managing How We Compare Ourselves to Others
We need to distinguish between healthy ways to compare ourselves to others and unhealthy ways to compare ourselves to others.
We can’t simply say it’s always bad.
And we certainly know that it’s not always good.
But in order to use comparison in a way that’s helpful for our own self-development, a few issues need to be worked out.
The Problem of Objectivity
We are not objective. Ever.
In the second example from above, when I mentioned that some guy was better than I was with friendships, I wrote that “I believed” he was better. But, there’s no way for me to ever really know this. I’m just working off of my observations and a limited sample of his behavior. Additionally, my insecurities and personal issues are at play here too, which are certainly weighing on my judgment of the situation.
Therefore to stay anything with certainty, that it’s the truth, when we’re comparing ourselves to others, is almost ridiculous.
The truth is we’ll never know the full story of anyone or of any situation, and this is the primary reason we’re instructed not to compare ourselves to others – because we really don’t know what we need to know in order to make a real assessment of the situation.
This leads to…
The Problem of Judgement
Since we never know the true reality of a situation or of a person, yet we are programmed to be making judgments constantly, we’re making judgments with inaccurate or incomplete information. But, we can’t help this, since it’s in our nature to judge things so we can navigate the world.
When we judge someone else or we judge ourselves, we’re ascribing value to a person. And this is where you can kill yourself – or turn into a jerk.
But, wait: who are you to judge?
What makes you so special to know the truth about anyone, including yourself? You don’t. None of us know the entire truth about anybody’s particular situation. So we must keep in mind that our judgments are misleading. This is another reason to not compare yourself to others.
The key here is to have some real humility.
The Problem of Identification
You are a biased person, making snap judgments about a situation you don’t fully understand while fitting it all into a societal framework you may or may not fully agree with.
Worst of all – you take this information and personally identify with it.
So when you combine these problems – identifying with false or incomplete information, it can be soul-crushing.
How to Compare Yourself to Others
So, what’s a healthy way to do it? I’m not 100% sure. And comparing yourself to others certainly is dangerous. You can easily fall into the poor self-esteem depression death spiral. But there’s also so much to gain in terms of personal growth if you’re able to compare yourself to others in a healthy way. So I think it’s worth working on.
Maybe the list below will provide a good place to start in order to compare yourself to others in a beneficial way.
1) What do you want? Who do you want to be?
2) Again, what do you want? Who do you really want to be?
These are your values. This is what’s important to you. Forget about the rest of the world.
3) Who’s done what you want to do?
4) What’s the difference between where they are and where you are? Right now.
5) Do not make a value judgment on your current life position, or their current life position. It is what it is.
6) Do not identify with the results you’ve had so far. It has nothing to do with your self-worth as a person.
7) Now, close the gap in #4.
If you approach the way you compare yourself to others like this it will:
- Increase your sense of self, because you’re learning, improving, and making progress
- Help you accomplish your goals, because it’s not about you. It’s about your growth.
We all need help in order to accomplish the things we want to do. Learning from others who are better than we put us on the fast track to where we want to go.