Why it’s useless, and what you should do instead.
Humans are psychologically disinclined to be satisfied with what we have.
If you examine your own life, you’ll notice a pattern: you strive for an unattainable goal. Money, the regard of another person, some notable achievement.
Then, overwhelming happiness as you reach it. You get the raise, you get the boy, you get the award. You’re proud, you’re amazed, you’re happy. You’re satisfied. And then, it becomes normal. Without skipping a beat, your eyes drift past your recent accomplishment, already fixed on the next target.
We’re already looking around, seeing how others got where we are now faster, in a better way, and how they’re already ahead of us. We know we feel good about what we’ve just done, but we want to compare ourselves to others, to evaluate our standing and our achievements.
This characteristic makes us excellent innovators. It’s pushed us to explore further, understand more deeply. It’s driven us to improve ourselves beyond what was once thought possible. But it also means we can never rest content. As long as our eyes are focused on this impossible finish line of being better than everyone else, we feel our work is never done.
Your brain then versus now.
The father of social comparison theory, Leon Festinger, said that we compare ourselves to others as a way of measuring our own worth.
Our brain is wired to make split-second decisions — judgements — about others. It’s this same trait which is linked to comparisons. We instantly assess others, and then we immediately relate that information to ourselves. It helps inform our worldview, our grasp of how we mesh as a society.
The good is that this helps build cohesive social groups, which was imperative back when each of us needed to do what we were best at, in order for the group to survive. If you were no longer the best spear-thrower, perhaps it was best for you to focus on another strength instead, as that role had been filled.
It’s strategic — a way of finding out what we’re good at, what we’re not so great at, what we can improve in.
The bad, of course, is that we no longer specialize in things like spear throwing, or root-gathering. Our society no longer values disparate traits: instead we all seem to strive for a single ideal, of fit, happy, healthy, beautiful, wealthy and loved. As soon as possible.
Add to that the fact that we live in an era of continual self-improvement. This means we compare ourselves to others, inevitably fall short in some regard, and then feel guilty because we feel we should be better. On top of that, the easiest way to consume entertainment is social media, which enables us to only see a shiny veneer of what others choose to show us in their lives. And we see a lot of it.
We’re only ever exposed to people running personal best times in half marathons, celebratory dinners when they’ve been promoted, announcing the birth of a new child, posting an image which has been filtered or carefully staged for optimal lighting. We have instant access to the lives of celebrities, carefully cultivated by social media managers to show us a charmed, happy, and perfect life.
Our brains tell us to look at what others have, and use it in a self-evaluative framework. We compare to others to assess how we feel about ourselves. And we’re constantly coming up short.
How can you stop fruitlessly comparing yourself?
Let me be clear: it’s good to have goals. And comparing ourselves to others allows us to formulate those goals.
When I was a competitive swimmer, I was able to see that others were quantifiably faster than me. So I strove to improve. When I was in high school, I knew there was the possibility of becoming valedictorian. So I tried to get the best grades I could. Even writing on Medium, part of the reason I try to continually improve myself is because I can see others writing more, writing better, and I want to reach that pinnacle. I know it’s possible.
The crucial thing is to note when comparisons are driving you to succeed, and when they’re just driving you to be miserable.
If you notice that milestones and accomplishments no longer bring you the same sense of fulfilment they once did, it’s time to take a step back.
Develop a deeper sense of gratitude.
One thing we’re all guilty of is taking our highlights for granted. In order to rest from the constant cycle of comparison, when you accomplish something, take a moment to relax in the sense of achievement.
For me, when I ran a half-marathon with my friend, she outpaced me almost immediately, coming in with a much better time than I did.
Instead of getting caught up in the fact that she did better than me, I tried to stay centered on the fact that I ran a half-marathon, something I never would have thought possible a year earlier. My legs were stronger than they’d ever been; I’d done better than I could have hoped.
At first, I thought about what I could do better next time. Train harder, for longer. Push more on the hills. I was dissatisfied with my own performance, compared to my friend.
But then I consciously let that feeling go, and I basked in my own achievement instead.
It’s not lazy, it’s not entitled, and it’s not foolish to pause the grind of self-improvement and simply enjoy the feeling of satisfaction.
Consider conflicting circumstances.
Remember that when you’re comparing yourself to someone else, it’s apples to oranges. Especially with social media, it’s easy to get the sense that we know everything about someone else’s life, and therefore can make accurate comparisons.
We both went to the same school, did the same job, and now she has a promotion and I don’t.
The truth is, we only know what they choose to show us. And they’re not likely to share failures or struggles. We don’t all get the same starting hand in life, and different events happen to us during the course of our experiences.
Accept that you will be better and worse at things.
This is the hardest one for me. Back in our cave-age days, maybe it was simple to accept that I’d be better at fish-catching but worse at berry-gathering. Today, I feel I should be excellent at both.
There’s always the sense of “If you try hard enough, you can accomplish anything,” which when paired with the comparison trap, means that we always feel we’re just not trying hard enough to achieve everything we want in life. It’s not true.
In order to get some peace, I needed to accept that, hard as I might try, I will never be the fastest at long-distance swimming, for example. I might never be the best author. It’s likely I’ll never run a half-marathon faster than my friend.
What’s more, even if it were possible, it might not be worth it. Far better to pursue something I’m passionate about, and have a chance of improving in, than futilely chasing something just in order to be “the best.”
Here’s what it boils down to: take pride in the things you’re good at. Understand that there are things you’re not good at. Accept that there will always be someone better, no matter what, due to circumstance or genetics or just blind luck. Know that the internet and social media makes it easy for you to see where you fail, rather than where you’re strong.
Focus on what you can achieve, using comparisons to fuel your desire to improve, but without letting them overpower your own sense of self-worth. Remember to be grateful for what you’ve accomplished, and to actively pause before moving onto your next target.