The fastest, guaranteed way to go from being happy and contented to becoming miserable and gloomy is by comparing yourself to others. So why do we indulge in such comparisons, and how do we rid ourselves of this tendency?
Let’s start with an incident from 1995—a bank robbery that led to a critical behavioral psychology lesson.
Not so invisible
A man robbed two banks in broad daylight in Pittsburgh, PA. He was unmasked and smiled at the security cameras as he left the crime scene. A few hours later, he was genuinely surprised when the cops found him. He seemed shocked that they were able to identify and track him down.
The man, Arthur Wheeler, went in to rob the banks after applying lemon juice to his face. He had heard lemon juice referred to as “invisible ink.” (A third-grade science experiment where you can write secret messages with lemonade. The text becomes visible when exposed to heat sources due to carbonation/oxidation processes). Wheeler truly believed his face was invisible because he had covered it in lemon juice.
Wheeler wasn’t insane or high. He simply thought he had a trick up his sleeve (his face?) to beat the system.
The Wheeler robbery incident caused psychologist Dunning and his graduate student Kruger to develop what is now known as the “Dunning-Kruger” effect.
The Dunning-Kruger (DK) Effect is the cognitive bias you exhibit when you think you know more than you do. I’m sure many of you are now picturing someone you know who you think are embodiments of this theory.
The DK effect explains how some people have an inflated sense of ability because they don’t know better or cannot recognize their own ignorance.
Either they compare themselves to others and feel they are better off or simply don’t engage in any comparison at all. They are genuinely ignorant of the logical fallacy in their thoughts.
At the opposite end of the Dunning-Kruger effect is the Impostor syndrome.
The Impostor syndrome is where a person doubts their ability, skills, talent, knowledge, and accomplishments and are often concerned about being not “good enough” or worried about being exposed as a fraud.
Again, impostor syndrome is widespread, especially among women, and isn’t merely modesty in action. It is a genuine sense of insecurity and irrational fear of being “found out.” Please read this post for more on impostor syndrome and how even iconic stars such as Meryl Streep haven’t escaped from its vice-like grip.
The relevance of the above theories
While the Dunning-Kruger effect stems from overestimating our ability compared to others, Impostor syndrome arises from underestimating one’s ability relative to others.
But, do you see the common thread here between the two? It's our innate need to compare ourselves with others.
Why do we feel the need always to judge ourselves against others even though it makes us gloomy? And what do you have to do to stop comparing yourself to others?
First, let’s look at what triggers comparison.
Depending on your life circumstances, hearing any of the following is bound to stir up some emotions (likely negative).
- Someone you know makes a career leap (a new job or promotion)
- A friend gets married or has a child
- You hear of a colleague’s child getting on to the star soccer team
- A relative of yours buys a fancy house
- You see a friend’s vacation pictures (from Turks and Caicos, no less).
One minute you are going about your life quite content, but then you encounter a trigger (like the ones listed above). And, just like that, you’re spiraling in a chain of negative emotions (disappointment, remorse, jealousy, or just plain despair).
What just happened? The comparison monster just reared its ugly head.
The need to compare
The act of comparison is inevitable, natural, and an innate part of the human psyche.
Let’s say you are a student and have just taken a test and get a score of 33/100. Prima facie evidence suggests that you’ve flunked your test. But you cannot be sure unless you compare your score with that of the other test-takers. If the average class test score is 23/100 (maybe the professor who administered your test just had a fight with his wife at home and decided to take it out on the class), then you’ve, in fact, done well. Phew!
This much is true. In life, merely dealing with absolutes usually gets us nowhere. Everything is relative.
Saying you are a millionaire is a very different value proposition in Venezuela versus the United States. One US Dollar is the equivalent of almost half a million VES (Venezuelan Sovereign Bolivar). So being a VES millionaire is equivalent to having less than three USD, not quite someone Americans would refer to as a millionaire.
Therefore, a certain level of comparison and normalization (adjusting values to use a common scale) of data is necessary.
Trouble arises when you let comparisons ruin your day
So, how do you rise above the fray and stop comparing yourself to others? Before we address the how-to, it’s essential to answer these questions:
- Why do we compare ourselves to others?
- How is the comparison made?
- Who do we compare ourselves to?
- What are we comparing?
Why do we compare?
For this, we can turn to some published research and key theories on comparison to guide us.
Social Comparison Theory
The proponent of the Social Comparison Theory, social psychologist, Leon Festinger postulated that we humans derive our very sense of self and self-worth by evaluating ourselves against others. His theory suggests that it’s only by comparing ourselves to others that we gain an accurate assessment of our abilities and beliefs.
How do we compare?
Other researchers then further took the Social Comparison theory and identified two very relevant concepts: upward and downward comparisons.
In my opinion, these concepts truly explain what motivates comparison with another in the first place and provide hints on why you need to stop comparing yourself to others.
Upward comparison is when you compare yourself to someone faring better than you in a given area. For instance, if you get a pay raise at work but are dissatisfied because you compare your pay to that of the CEO (I’m assuming you’re not already the CEO, in which case you probably are comparing yourself to other industry CEOs).
Upward comparisons generally result in a feeling of lack or want, that you’re not quite good enough. Your self-esteem takes a hit.
In downward comparison, you compare yourself to people you perceive are worse off than you are. An Ivy League college student may have a chip on their shoulder when comparing themselves to someone in a community college, especially if both students attended the same high school.
Downward comparisons tend to be ego-boosting and make one feel like they somehow are better.
Who do we compare ourselves to?
We tend to compare ourselves to people with whom we think we have something in common.
Comparisons have no effect when the subjects are too diverse
Our self-esteem is affected only when we compare ourselves to folks with whom we share some common background such as racial, cultural, socio-economic, etc.
This makes sense intuitively. It is rare for you to be bothered by the picture of George Clooney on his private yacht but much more challenging to digest when it’s a friend or acquaintance (someone you share a social circle with) posing on their boat.
Put another way, your comparisons are limited to people “within your league,” whichever way you define that league.
This is definitely a blessing in disguise. Imagine the alternative: continually comparing yourself to the seven billion other humans on the planet is a sure-fire way to lose sanity.
What are we comparing?
We are only bothered when our comparisons are triggered by events or news within our sphere of interest.
For example, let’s suppose you’re into a minimalist lifestyle. In that case, pictures of a yacht or other material excesses, even if it’s of someone you identify with closely, are not going to bother you. On the other hand, having the same person get complimentary front-row seats at a basketball game where your favorite team is playing may irk you if you’re stuck in the last row.
Results of comparison
As you probably have noticed, upward comparisons tend to have more negative emotions associated with them. Though comparisons are unavoidable, we need ways to focus on the positive within ourselves and our lives instead of the negative. Here are some time-tested ways to do that.
How to stop comparing yourself to others
Here are some ways to stop comparing yourself to others (or at least not dwell on what’s wrong).
1. Embrace your uniqueness
The mold you are made from was destroyed right after you were born. Embrace and be grateful for your unique personality and skills. Remember, there is no one else exactly like you on the planet—yes, I checked all seven billion people.
2. Find your strengths
Organizations have practiced the concept of conducting SWOT Analyses (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats) to identify their core competencies. Psychologists later decided that even individuals and not just organizations could benefit from such SWOT analyses.
More recently, the focus has shifted to just the ‘S’ on the SWOT analysis—to identify strengths. There are now various apps, tools, and books in the market that help identify and allow you to hone in on your unique strengths.
Knowing what strengths you possess will help significantly tone down the rhetoric when comparing yourself to others.
3. The elephant on your phone
I’m not a betting person, but if I were, I’d bet a lot of the comparison angst starts when you scroll through social media feeds.
A recent study has shown that the #1 online activity in the US (and the rest of the world is catching up too) is the use of social media. In other words, people go online to socially interact with one another (or lurk) more than they go online to shop, read, research, etc.
Isn’t that telling? No wonder we are so caught up in keeping up with the latest and besieged by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
It helps to remember that social media is where people show off the best version of themselves. It’s quite unlikely to see someone routinely post pictures of their bad hair days or messy floors. The mirage of perfection on social media is simply a snippet of reality and not the whole truth.
While there may be practical reasons to stay on social media (to connect with faraway friends and family), a social media fast or detox every so often is a great way to rein in the toxicity stemming from the urge to compare lives.
Even a few days or weeks spent away from comparing yourself to others is going to help you get some perspective.
4. Understand the concept of Transience
The one constant in life is change—everything changes. Rumor is that every seven to ten years, our entire cellular structure completely dies and regenerates. In the face of so much transformation, it helps to remind ourselves that our mindset, likes, and dislikes are bound to undergo some modifications as well.
So whatever area of life you feel you’re underperforming in (in comparison to someone else) may not matter at all in the long run (or even the short term).
Losing sleep today because your neighbor snagged the last good pair of shoes at the store-closing sale isn’t worth it.
5. Change the movie reel playing in your head
If you’re always engaged in upward comparisons, try to shift focus to see how much better off you are than those who’d love to be in your shoes. The practice of gratitude journaling goes a long way in helping with this.
People brag about how competitive they are. Comparisons are encouraged in our culture. As a result, our insecurities and deep-seated fears rear their ugly head when we feel we lack in some way, shape, or form when compared to others.
It need not be this way.
Here’s a Sanskrit couplet that is an apt metaphor for why comparisons are a waste of time:
Bhavat ye Kasthale Janma Gandhaste Shaam Prithak Prithak
Utpal asya Mrunaal asya Matsya asya Kumud asya Cha
Roughly translated, here’s what it means:
Colored water lilies, fish, lotus are all different objects emerging from and found in the same water-body. But they smell very different from each another.
Your uniqueness is your strength. So, stop comparing yourself to others. Already.