How much time every day do we spend comparing ourselves to others?
If you’re like me, it’s a lot more than you’d like.
- Danny’s blog gets more traffic than mine (and started it more recently than I did).
- Jason from college is more successful than I am.
- Alice from high school is getting married, while I’m still single.
We do it everyday. I do it everyday.
Having just started my business and entrepreneurship blog, I’m already looking at other peoples’ old traffic reports to see how I stack up.
This has to stop! At a minimum, we have to channel our desire to compare ourselves with others in a productive way.
If you’re struggling like me to quit comparing yourself to others and want to move on, read on.
Why Do We Compare Ourselves To Others?
Let’s first understand the root cause of this problem. Would it help if I told you that it’s not just the two of us that have this issue?
In fact, this problem is widespread enough that an entire branch of psychology has been devoted to it. It’s called Social Comparison Theory.
In and of itself, social comparison is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s somewhat of a necessary thing for us to gain a more accurate depiction of ourselves, our abilities and our standing in the world. This can be beneficial for a wide variety of purposes such as self improvement, motivation, and validation.
In short, it can provide a nice kick in the ass. But sometimes it kicks a little too hard.
When Is It Unhealthy?
Social comparison takes a turn for the unhealthy when it ceases to be a motivator and becomes an obsession as to why we are not performing as well as someone else.
This is the result of upward social comparison (comparing ourselves to someone who is “outperforming” us), as opposed to downward social comparison, which, as shameful as it is to admit, can make us feel better about ourselves.
Unfortunately, the world is biased towards upward social comparison, because those are the stories you hear about more often.
No one hears about the bloggers who aren’t getting any traffic, because…they’re not getting any traffic, but everyone read’s Pat Flynn’s income reports.
Even among our friends and neighbors, people have a habit of talking – sometimes bragging – about what is going well.
I’m reminded of my college reunion. I must have talked to over a dozen people, and, would you believe it, everyone was doing great! They loved their jobs, where they were living, their social groups.
If I didn’t know any better, I would say I was the only one who wasn’t super jazzed up about heading into work everyday.
In reality, they chose to keep the more negative matters private.
This is all well and good, but it does present a skewed picture as to how things really are.
When you’re faced with this upward social comparison in too large of a dose, some bad things start to happen.
Firstly, it’s counter productive.
If your goal is to do well, you should be focusing on what you need to do and how you can do it. While it’s okay – even encouraged – to look towards people who have achieved more than you, figure out their steps and apply them to achieve your goal, it is not productive to merely focus on where they are at. You’re missing the struggle that got them there and just beating yourself up about not being there too. As a result, you won’t appreciate what they’ve achieved and will grow to resent them and their success.
Next, it breeds competitiveness.
When you compare yourself to others, you are making a competitor out of that person. Whether or not they actually are a competitor, you have deemed them so. As such, you aren’t likely to want to build a relationship with this person. You probably won’t be sharing their work or helping them get further ahead. You won’t trust that person.
But as many of us know, this is really what is necessary to get ahead ourselves. Building relationships and helping others is perhaps the most effective way to help ourselves. That’s just karma, and whether or not you believe in it, it’s been show to be true.
Above all though, it’s a lose-lose battle. There are an infinite number of opportunities for upward social comparison; there is always someone doing better than us in something. So if you want to be consumed by it, it is quite easy. It is all around us.
How To Overcome Negative Social Comparison In 4 Difficult Steps
I wish I could say that the following steps were going to be easy, but like all behavioral and psychological changes, it takes time, determination, and practice.
Step 1: Accept That No Two People Are The Same
You have to understand that no two people are the same and they are not meant to be compared. We don’t know what background people came from. We don’t know what resources they had or didn’t have. We don’t know what else might be going on in their life.
Step 2: Get To Know Your “Competitors”
Part of the problem lies in incomplete information. We can’t make an accurate comparison because we don’t know enough about who we are comparing ourselves to. If you take the time to get to know the people you are comparing yourself with, you will probably see that they are struggling with many things as well. In fact, it might be the case that they are struggling with some things that you have mastered.
Step 3: Focus On The Strides You’ve Made
What is really the point of all this, but to improve ourselves? We’re not just trying to feel better or feel worse, we’re trying to achieve a goal. Let’s focus on the goals we’ve already made and be happy with that progress. There is probably someone else who is wishing that they were making the progress you have. The happier your are with yourself the less likely you will feel the need to compare yourself to others.
Step 4: Recognize That There Can Be More Than One Winner
Why do we assume that if someone else is doing well, that there is no room for us to do well?
The game of life is not a winner takes all high stakes poker match. It is a communal effort to be happy, successful, and make others around you happy and successful too.
While it is probably not the case that, after taking these four steps, you will never compare yourself to another person.
But it is certainly a step in the right direction.
If there is one takeaway from this article it is to know that we are all in this together.
Yes there is a tremendous pressure to succeed. Yes it is hard to not get jealous of another person’s success or to want to measure ourselves against our peers. But to what end?
Starting today, try something different. Start taking the initial steps outlined in the article with me and see if we can overcome this social comparison attitude together. And when you do, let me know how it goes in the comments!
Image credit: Courtesy Kee & Farid/PNAS