My last post was about negative self-talk. A primary source of this negative self-talk is the practice that most people have of comparing themselves to others. In the majority of instances, comparing makes people feel worse. In a not insignificant minority of cases, though, comparison can actually make them feel better. There are dangers in both cases.
When you compare yourself with someone else and come up with the short end of the stick you have created for yourself a feeling of negativity, of being “less than.” Note that I say YOU ARE CREATING. After all it is your decision to make the comparison, no one else’s. Why would you choose to make yourself feel bad? (Answer is below*).
Now you may say that “I can’t help it” which, at least in the short term, I can accept. But what I won’t accept is the idea that you can’t make a decision to truncate the comparison and to either move on to some other thought or, preferably, to deconstruct the comparison. How do you deconstruct the comparison? By recognizing the misleading traps that lurk in any attempt to measure yourself against another.
For example, let’s say you’re an ordinary looking guy who’s 5’6″ tall and envy the studly looking guy who’s a foot taller. If only your could be as tall and handsome as him! Or you’re a kind of shy teenage girl who wishes she had the outgoing personality of the captain of the cheerleaders. Or a 10-year-post-graduation MBA whose classmates seem to be vastly more successful. Or a flat chested woman who wants bigger boobs. Or someone whose brother is in a much happier marriage than his own. Or envy of someone who won the lottery. Or a guy who wishes he were hung like a porn star. Or the marathon winner. You get the picture.
First of all, there’s no way you can accurately evaluate the pluses AND MINUSES of the person to whom you’re comparing yourself. Let’s go over the list above. Neither the guy who wishes he were taller and better looking, the woman who wants bigger boobs, nor the guy who wishes he were better endowed realize that people with such admirable physical endowments are often highly insecure and unhappy for fear that people or situations that are attracted to them are actually attracted only to those endowments rather than to them as fully formed people.
What about wishing you were the girl with the great personality, the successful MBA graduate, the more happily married brother, or the lottery winner? You simply can not know whether in fact what you see on the surface is true. Many cheerleaders cut themselves, many apparently happy marriages are inherently toxic, many outwardly successful MBAs are overleveraged, or have resorted to highly unethical or illegal practices to achieve their success (most recent example: Martin Shkreli), and studies of lottery winners show that their rate of death from suicide, drug addiction, murder or carelessness is significantly higher than the norm.
Be careful what you wish for!
Second, recognize that in comparing yourself to others you aren’t very likely to notice the ways in which your “idol” pays a price you wouldn’t want to pay. The successful MBA……would you want to work the 80 hours a week that he does? Would you want to spend the hundreds and hundreds of grueling hours necessary to be a championship athlete? Confirmation bias (the tendency to overweight evidence that supports our point-of-view and that obfuscates contrary information) makes balanced evaluation impossible.
Finally, please recognize the futility and waste of spending a lot of time wishing for things beyond your control, many of which are in the list above.
What about comparing yourself positively to another. Well, it can make you feel better about a problem (a typical example is when you hear someone interrupt their complaining by recognizing that the complaint is a “first world” one, for example grumbling about the stress involved in buying all the Christmas presents on your list, or the many details you have to handle in arranging a trip to the Caribbean), In general though, comparing yourself favorably to others leads either to a narcissistic view of the world (look at how Donald Trump incessantly compares himself to others), or is of only fleeting solace.
I am not by any means suggesting that you bury your head in the sand and pay no attention to the lives and achievements of others. Looking to others can be inspiring and motivating, and can most certainly be a valuable source of learning. But recognize that you will have a less-than-fully-accurate view, and that therefore the comparison will be inherently flawed and frequently badly misleading.
* If I think of myself as a loser I will focus on the facts and circumstances of my life that confirm that point-of-view, and ignore those that contradict it. Again, the power of confirmation bias.