Competition is as natural as the earth beneath our feet. It’s a pillar of nature and evolution and is how we’ve come to be where we are as humans.
But for most of us, modern life doesn’t come with a daily life or death struggle where competition is absolutely necessary.
Yet we so easily fall into the habit of comparing ourselves to others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure, or anxiety and can keep us from reaching our goals.
For some, mindfully acknowledging comparative thinking and allowing it to pass works. But for those of us yet to reach this level of mindfulness (author included), there are things that we can do to help us carefully navigate comparisons and turn them into meaningful motivators.
Why we compare ourselves to others
Psychologists explain comparative behavior as a way for us to assess ourselves in relation to others. This is called Social Comparison Theory and it was first proposed in the 1950s by psychologist Leon Festinger. According to Social Comparison Theory, we gain a more accurate evaluation of ourselves when we have the benchmark of others to measure ourselves up to.
We so easily fall into the habit of comparing ourselves to others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure, or anxiety and can keep us from reaching our goals.
For example, if you’ve been learning to sing as part of a choir, you could measure your performance by how quickly you’re learning new songs. But if at choir practice, you find you’re singing in the wrong key, your progress could be seen as slower than members that learned the songs correctly. Social comparison in a practical case like this can be beneficial, as the success of the group relies on cohesive accomplishments. The issue is when we apply comparative thinking to unrealistic or unhelpful circumstances that do us more harm than good.
When comparison goes bad
Comparison can have a negative effect on your productivity, motivation, and mental health when it’s unnecessary or unrealistic as in the circumstances below.
When the benchmark is everyone
In the example above it was helpful for an aspiring singer to compare themselves to the rest of the choir. What wouldn’t be helpful would be to compare their vocal ability to Prince or Beyonce. And yet this is the sort of trap that is easy to fall into thanks to the internet.
Our social circle was once a small group of family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. The internet and social media have extended our network to people from our past, friends of friends that we hardly know, and even strangers whose paths we’re unlikely to cross in real life. This means that the pool of people that we have to set our benchmark against is near-infinite, and when that’s the case, you’re always going to be behind someone.
When you don’t know what you’re comparing yourself to
If you’re comparing yourself to someone else, it’s always going to be an unfair comparison because you’ll never have a full understanding of their life. This is true for people we are close to, but more so for people whose lives we follow on the internet.
From the outside, a successful co-worker, friend, or family member may seem like they have life figured out. They could be making good strides in their career, their home could look immaculate, and their kids may seem well-behaved. But behind closed doors, they probably have horrid days at work where they come home to screaming children that have turned their house upside down. On those days, they probably scroll through social media and compare their lives to others – and that other could very well be you.
If you’re comparing yourself to someone else, it’s always going to be an unfair comparison because you’ll never have a full understanding of their life.
The fact is, we never know. We hardy divulge the truth of our struggles to those that ask. And more rarely share the inevitable mess of life on social media. What we regularly project is the best version of ourselves to stop us from feeling vulnerable.
When we compare our lives to others, we’re comparing our best and worst, with someone else’s public perfection. That can only ever lead to feelings of ‘less than’ and failure. This leaves us with a damaged perception of our own achievements; kills motivation and productivity, and can harm our mental health.
When it can make you jaded
According to Social Comparison Theory, we look above (upward) and below (downward) our social standing when we compare ourselves. Upward social comparison is when we use people that we think are in a better position as the benchmark. Downward social comparison is where we compare ourselves to people who we think are worse off. Unfortunately, both can have a detrimental effect on how you perceive those around you.
When we compare our lives to others, we’re comparing our best and worst, with someone else’s public perfection.
Upward social comparison can be helpful if we use our learnings to improve our situation (more on how to do that later). However, if we’re in a negative headspace, don’t notice that we’re comparing ourselves, or don’t know how to use comparison as a motivator, it can make us more judgemental of others. It can lead to jealously or resentment towards people we barely know, and we can even start trying to look for flaws to make ourselves feel better.
When the benchmark is lowered and we look to those less fortunate, we might feel better about where we are, but this comes at the expense of others. The issue here is that our happiness or sense of accomplishment requires others to be doing worse than we are. This thinking fosters competitiveness over collaboration which can slow progress for everyone.
Unchecked upward or downward comparison is dangerous because it means we think that our adequacy depends on others. In doing so, we run the risk of seeing those around us as adversaries instead of as our peers, collaborators, or community.
Turn comparison to motivation with these three steps
It would be ideal if we could somehow turn the comparison switch off in our brain. But unfortunately, it’s one of those behaviors that are inherent in human nature. However, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If you can be more aware of when you compare yourself to others, then follow up with thoughts that can help you understand why and what you should do about it, you can turn it into a powerful motivator. Here’s how.
- Be aware of when this behavior occurs
Comparison is so etched in our lives that we usually don’t realize we’re doing it. A lot of the time it happens unconsciously. If you’ve ever scrolled through social media and felt worse about your life without knowing why, it’s probably because you were comparing your life to what other people had posted about theirs.
Being more in tune with when you compare yourself to others is the first step to correcting your thinking before it manifests into resentment, self-doubt, or unhappiness.
- Be honest about why
The funny thing about comparisons is that sometimes we’re triggered by something that we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. For example, you may be happy living in your rented apartment.
It is the right size, it’s in the right neighborhood and allows you to live within your means. When you hear that a friend is building and buying their own home in the suburbs, you wonder why you haven’t bought a bigger suburban home and start to feel down about living in an apartment.
You never wanted to live in the suburbs or in a large house, but upon hearing that a peer is doing so, you question your success and measure it up against the benchmark of owning a home. All of a sudden, you’re feeling bad about your situation, not because anything has changed in your life, but because of something someone else is doing. It sounds a little crazy right?
If comparison makes you feel worse, ask yourself why and whether it is warranted. Ask yourself if what they have was ever on your radar. If it wasn’t, think about why it elicited such an emotional response. Sometimes when we’re lacking something in our lives, seeing others realize goals can make us feel bad regardless. Take the time to reflect on whether the standard that you are comparing to is a standard that you are actually striving for.
If it isn’t, you should look inward to see what it is you actually want and need to make you feel fulfilled regardless of what others are doing. Realizing goals that you’ve set for yourself, because you actually want them (not because you think you want them, or because that’s what everyone else is doing) is a real measure of success.
- Practice gratitude
Gratitude is known as a wonderful tool for happiness, but it can also be a great motivator. Life is hard. We don’t need to add the pressure of living up to other people’s standards to that. The next time you realize that you’re comparing yourself to others, take a look at what you have, and acknowledge your achievements. Think about your life and be grateful for it. You would’ve had to put in a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice to have what you do today. Celebrate that!
When you place value on what you have and what you’ve achieved, you won’t need to look to other people’s lives to validate your own. Contentment trumps comparison, and if you can focus more on your own journey, you can use your achievements as markers of success. Your success will remind you of your potential and empower you to work towards your goals. When you take time to practice gratitude, it opens your eyes to your success which is more energizing and motivating than comparing yourself to others.
Comparison is the canary
You are the gold mine. Whenever you find yourself comparing your life or achievements to others, see it as a sign of a need to look inward. Comparative thinking should alert you to the need to focus on your own life and journey. When you start to approach comparison in this way, it becomes the catalyst for self-improvement and motivation and will bring you even closer to hitting those goals.