I’m guessing I’m not the only person who frequently finds myself falling onto the ever-alluring trap of comparing myself to others. It’s our default position when it comes to determining how successful we are, how rich we are, how attractive we are, how popular we are. We find ourselves sucked in to playing this strange game of comparison as we try to work out who we are and how we fit into the world – but what affect does all this comparison have on us?
According to sociologists, there are two types of social comparison: upward comparison (this is what’s going on when you watch the ‘Single Ladies’ music video and mourn the fact that you will never be able to dance like Beyoncé) and downward comparison (this is when you do an internal fist pump because you beat an 8 year old at a board game and you know you are infinitely superior to them at connect 4). And experts say that both can have positive outcomes.
But – and there’s a big but.
We’re terrible at comparison. We’re biased. We don’t compare objectively. Consequently, an almost guaranteed side-effect of comparison is the spiral of self-doubt it propels us into, not to mention the Pandora’s box of comparison sickness that gets opened, featuring envy, low-self confidence, depression, and an inability to trust others. These negative side effects are almost always perpetuated by the fact that we’re cataclysmically biased in our comparisons: we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. Guess what? The version of themselves people portray on social media is not a full and holistic and detailed representation of who they are and what their lives are like. Of course your life looks crap in comparison to someone else’s if you’re comparing your tough day at work with their Instagram filtered holiday snaps.
What’s more, comparison is at its most destructive when we allow it to convince us that there is not enough to go around. Imagine I were to run a half marathon and I run a time of 2 hours 22 minutes. It’s a pretty average time: there would be lots of people who were much faster than me, but there would also be people slower than me. Now let’s imagine I run my second half marathon, and I do it in 2 hours and 19 minutes – hooray! I’ve beaten my previous time and achieved my goal time. But let’s imagine that in that second race (for some strange reason) the only runners are me and Mo Farah. He’ll finish the race in just under an hour, and I’ll spend a demoralising extra hour and a half wondering how I am literally travelling at less than half the speed of the other runner.
And there’s the trick of comparison: it feeds us the lie that if someone else is good at something, we must therefore be less good at it. Whilst I am – obviously – not as fast as Mo Farah, his speediness does not actually have any relevance to my own running ability. There’s not a limited amount of skill which is spread out between people, where another person’s gain in skill equates to your loss. You can be objectively better than me at something, but your success does not diminish mine.
Unless you’re a robot, the comparisons and subsequent conclusions you make are probably very rarely value neutral. They’re loaded with value judgements that are often toxic to our self-esteem – ‘She’s thinner than me’ is technically a factual statement (person B may indeed have a lover body fat percentage than person A) but it’s rarely a neutral thought. Instead, we so often use comparisons against ourselves as negative judgements: the factual statement ‘she’s thinner than me’ gets incorrectly filed in our brains and instead lodges itself as ‘I weigh too much’. Likewise, ‘She earns more than me’ very quickly morphs into ‘Why am I not more successful?’ Even if we turn the comparisons on their head, and we come out of the comparison ‘better’, we’re making negative value judgements about someone else. Comparisons lead us to devalue either ourselves or other people, and that’s never okay.
I’ve got another issue with comparison: it tends to drown out the truth that we are all unique. By the nature of comparison, we are measuring ourselves against other people as if we are comparing like to like. Take a small, isolated factor and of course comparison is possible: I am less good at speaking French than my friend Charlotte (we once went to Paris together and I’m pretty sure people thought she was French!). But I am also so much more than a (pretty limited) walking French dictionary. Charlotte is better at French – and a whole lot of other things – than me, but I’m better at some different things, too. When we compare, we’re often looking at our lives through blinkers, taking a tiny aspect and letting it, in that moment, define our worth against someone else’s.
Comparison is corrosive. It burns away our self esteem, our confidence and our ability to keep a clear perspective on who we are. Agonising about how someone else is better looking, has more friends, or is more successful than you is both time-consuming and ineffective, and drowns us in discontentment about who we are. An identity built on isolated and subjective comparisons against other people is as fragile as glass. As Theodore Roosevelt famously put it: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ However, if I may be so bold, I think I’d like to add to Teddy’s quote. Comparison is the thief of joy – because it robs us of contentment in who we are.
And in the theme of being content in who we are, I’d like to leave you with this wonderful poem:
Written by Anna Jacklin. This post was edited from the Joy Experiment 2016 https://joy2016blog.wordpress.com/.