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Should You Compare Yourself Against Others?

I Love Me; I Love Me Not…..

Not long ago I had one of those little moments that patiently hang around the subconscious only to reappear later for reflection. As always, the moment wedged itself into the busyness of routine activities when I was photographing the staff of an advertising agency for its website. You know how it goes: someone announces Photo Day, and thoughts immediately turn to hairstyles, neckties, make-up, and myriad other things people get sensitive about. We all do it. Yes, guys usually conceal it better than gals do, but the men are just as busy considering which suit projects the right degree of power, or which necktie color contrasts nicely. Such considerations about appearances are natural reactions. It’s what we humans do. We know people instantly decide whether they like the person in a picture. So, it’s no surprise we want to look good to be liked.

Inevitably at a photo session, there is that one person who knows exactly how she wants to be photographed. And sure enough, at this session, she rushed in late with her face fully made up, her hair carefully coiffed, and a choice of blouses slung over her shoulder. She was a svelte, middle-aged, single mom who wanted to project both her self-assurance and her availability, the latter not too brazenly – hence the choice of blouses. She pushed the camera and me around to realize her vision. I didn’t mind: I made the pictures she wanted, and then I followed up with those I wanted. Thank you, so much. Next person, please. And then, that little moment happened.

The next employee to photograph, Amy, simply walked in and sat down. She was moderately plump, not at all the waif-like model traipsing through glossy magazines. She settled herself, raked her hand through her hair and was ready. To be sure, she had put on make up, brushed her hair, and chosen a blouse, all in advance. The blouse was scoop-necked but not revealing. From behind me, the art director made small talk with Amy. There was the usual patter about hair, make up, and the color and manner in which the blouse complemented her color and shape. That’s when Amy popped out the words that stayed with me. She simply said, “I like my chest. I think I have a beautiful chest. I like to show it off. My husband tells me I am beautiful several times a day.” That’s it. There it was. We finished the pictures, and she went back to work.

Spoiler alert: we didn’t fall in love and live happily ever after. It wasn’t that kind of moment. What struck me was her contentment with herself just as she was. She didn’t compare her figure with those of women in magazines or on television and find herself wanting. She simply liked herself as she was. The freckles across her chest were not spoiling porcelain skin. Those freckles were components of her beauty. How refreshing the feeling this attitude evoked! The peace that emanates from someone comfortable with herself is inviting, a beckoning to cease the clamorous comparisons we make internally all day long.

Comparing ourselves with others is a deeply human habit. We see people and seamlessly consider how they are both similar to and different from us. It is an important way to comprehend our world and make choices about our behavior. We learn by comparing ourselves with others even as they learn by comparing themselves with us. Indeed, comparisons are necessary to keep the “civil” in civilization and lend cohesion to society. Such comparisons are both natural and healthy. Except, of course, when they aren’t.

Comparisons become unhealthy when we use them to determine our self-worth. To do this is to cede our self-determination to others. We err by relying on the appearances of things and thinking there is a “right” path through life.

Appearances can be deceiving. Aristotle decided that the sun circled the earth based on the appearance of things. Oops. Well, in defense of the esteemed philosopher, it still looks that way today. But we know it’s just not so. Appearance doesn’t always reveal truth. That our neighbors the Smiths appear to be the “perfect” family doesn’t tell us if, in fact, they are. From a distance, they look so – well – perfect that we fool ourselves into thinking they must be. Of course, deep down, we know the Smith’s are every bit as imperfect as we are, but it is easier to take the appearance for the truth than to remind ourselves it might be otherwise. It’s also easy to contrast the messy details of our family to that simple, ideal image of the Smiths and find fault with our family. We can only know if the Smiths are “perfect” once we come to know them well. Comparisons formed on appearances and used to make one feel good or bad are simply false. But they are powerful – it took centuries for the world to figure out that the earth had been swinging around the sun all that time.

We also err whenever we say “the right way” to ourselves, particularly if it refers to the perceived exalted status of someone else. Success and happiness cannot be objectively measured. Consequently, no one “right” way exists to either define or attain these states. To be sure, our society commonly associates wealth with success and happiness. And clearly some people have more money than others. Yet, studies show that wealth doesn’t directly correlate with success or happiness. Acquisition of wealth is simply one endeavor of our society but is no more the “right” way to live a life than is work in a preschool. Success and happiness are individually determined. The means by which an individual becomes successful or happy is unique to that individual. To function properly, society needs business people generating wealth, but it also needs caregivers, educators, and every other sort of occupation people enjoy. When we compare ourselves to others, thinking, “I wish I were more like him”, we lose sight of our uniqueness and the path we’ve chosen for ourselves, a path, which is our unique “right” way. We wander away from this path and undermine our own traits and choices.

The truth is that you will never end the string of comparisons of yourself with others. Nor should you want to for your own safety among other things: if everyone is running from a fire while you are dashing toward it, you had better be sure you are a fireman. Also, society stays more or less in sync with us comparing ourselves with those comparing themselves with us. So, go with the flow and accept comparisons as natural, just don’t let such comparisons inform your feelings about yourself. Your uniqueness – and you are unique – demands only comparisons of you with yourself.

Comparisons of you with yourself serve to keep you on your own path. Such comparisons are important ways to track your progress toward your unique goals. It is good to stop and gaze back over the route you have traveled. For example, you can see how far you’ve come: the mortgage is mostly paid off. You can appreciate how much effort you put in: you chose to keep your perfectly comfortable Toyota instead of trading up. You had your doubts at the soccer games as other dads rolled in on shiny wheels under shiny hoods under shiny, luxe logos; these men seemed so much more successful than you. But despite the doubts, you now clearly see it was worth the effort to overcome the doubt: to have been in control and have accomplished a goal is very satisfying. Conversely, if you compare your personal progress and find less change than you had hoped, you can urge yourself to do more. Comparisons of progress toward the things you want from life are healthy and affirming. Engage in them.

What if you do draw comparisons to others to feel good or bad about yourself? It’s simple – stop it. Simple, yes, but never easy. Comparing yourself to others is ingrained because it started early, even before you were aware of it. Your Mom worried aloud that your sister started walking at an earlier age than you did – you sensed you were deficient. Your kindergarten teacher gave you more cartoon stickers than he gave any of your classmates – you sensed you were better than anyone else. Susan had her birthday party at Six Flags… he wore white socks with brown pants…she got into Harvard…he drove a BMW to college…and on and on over the years. You learned that these little comparisons to others made you feel something whether the feelings were good or not. Feeling something is easier than accomplishing something. We can feel a sense of accomplish without doing the work. This burns up time and energy better used to garden or play the piano. Comparisons to others to determine your feelings about yourself are the ones you want to avoid. These create a false sense of superiority or inferiority. To free up your mind and time, you have to channel this energy into better activities.

Getting Started

Before you go any further, remember Amy? Don’t compare yourself to her and assume you must be lacking her inner Zen quality. Amy just happened to have good habits in the self-appreciation department. Instead, aspire to be like Amy – that’s good – but don’t put yourself down in the process. Using comparisons as self-criticism is not a fault or a trait – it’s a habit you can and want to change to increase your happiness. Habits are malleable: you can shape and reshape them for a happier you.

Also, don’t expect your recognition of untrustworthy habits to be an epiphany, after which you will be “healed”. It takes time, continued vigilance, and a lot of lapses to remake habits. You have a long history of habits to change. Be forgiving to yourself. Enjoy the progress you make and know that you will continue to make more. So, here are some steps to work through:

Eavesdrop on Yourself (headphones, tape recorder, and disguised van optional)

The most important step in quelling self-criticism that results from comparing yourself to others is to recognize when you engage in it. Each time you envy someone, or feel shame for any of your body parts, or consider you do things all wrong, make a mental note. Write this thought down as soon as you get to a notepad or journal. Or better yet, keep a small journal tucked into a pocket or purse. Initially just notice critical thoughts and keep a record of them. You’ll probably be surprised at the number of times you are hard on yourself. Be content to observe your inner landscape of thoughts and feelings for several days.

The Forest and the Trees

If you are like most of us, over these days of observation you will notice some recurring thoughts. Perhaps something that goes like this: “her kids are so much better behaved than mine” or this: “they have so much more than I do”, or even this: “I just can’t do yoga; I look like a fool.” If the thoughts are negative and they recur, you’ve started discovering how you use comparisons to determine how you feel about yourself. Select the most common recurring criticism to focus on. As time goes on, you’ll most likely root out more negative comparisons, but for now zoom in on this one to take your work to the next step.

Loudly & Proudly

Speak this predominant criticism out loud. Give actual voice to your critical thought. Don’t blurt it out at the mall or in the locker room. Find a safe place where you are alone to call this inner thought out. Listen to the words as they take shape. Repeat it. Louder. It gets easier. Again. Now consider, would you ever say that to anyone else? Probably not. Why, then, do you say it to yourself? You love thy neighbor more than thyself? That’s not how the golden rule puts it.

Huff, Puff and Blow…the house down…

And then reframe it. Start from the ground and rebuild it. By the way, this is the hard part. You’ll be unable to do this sometimes, but other times you’ll excel. Over time, the successes will outnumber the lapses. So, when the Smiths appear to be a perfect family, compliment them on their success. It is not necessary to physically go share this with them. Just note to yourself how well they’ve done – and leave it there. Stop before you start thinking your family isn’t as perfect. If Marcia rips up the street in her new BMW Z4, think how much fun she is having – and leave it there. Stop before you chastise yourself for not making more money. If you encounter a beggar on the street, consider how difficult it must be to ask strangers for help – and leave it there. Stop before you think how better you are with your cozy house and fine clothes. These are just the differences between you and others and nothing more. So empathize: wave and smile at Marcia and the Smiths; acknowledge the human in the beggar with eye contact, nod and, if you are inclined, share some cash. Project your thoughts outward toward others rather than brooding in your inner world. Be positive about people – and yourself. Each time you do this, you can add another accomplishment to your progress. Nothing adds to a feeling of success than accomplishment. And if you see attributes in others you like, aspire to these and enfold them into your own goals.

In a Nutshell

  1. Listen to your comparisons and criticisms
  2. Write them down as they occur
  3. Speak the criticisms out loud to hear how they truly sound
  4. Reframe your responses to affirming the successes of others and/or aspiring to those qualities yourself.
  5. Rinse and repeat until clean. It takes many repetitions to effect change. Internal scripts usually don’t appear alone – they travel in packs. With each habit you alter, others come easier.

Blaze Your Trail

Over the course of 80+ years you complete an unique journey. No one starts where you did, travels where you have, and stops where you will. The choices made and routes taken are precisely the ones that have brought you to this exact spot at this time. You made them and you will make more to continue from here to your next destination. You have the power to determine where you’ll go and how fast and how far. You’ll make comparisons, but you’ll realize that the old hierarchical ideas of “better than/not as good as” simply resolve into valueless differences. You’ll find that you can be happy or sad for others in their success and troubles as they follow their own paths. You will be happy and sad in your own success and troubles as these relate to your unique path. You’ll have more energy for your journey.

Do the Walk, Not Just the Talk – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

You might take comfort in knowing that there are therapists trained to assist people with just these issues. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evolving and exciting field of personal therapy. CBT is less about talking and more about taking steps to learn healthier habits. The name says it clearly: thought and behavior. CBT therapists listen for scripts you have running inside and help you reframe them and change old habits. Following these same steps, they use your conscious thought to affect behavior. They will help you track your moods to determine your mood triggers, so you can preempt any known tendencies. CBT therapists will coach you through tough times as they affirm the changes you desire. CBT therapists are very actively engaged in helping you change habits. CBT aims for you to be mindful about bad internal scripts and active in remaking your habits. CBT might not be right for you, but know that it is there if you feel as if you’d like some help.

Old habits die hard. Notice your nightly routine for going to sleep. For mine, I read a few pages of a book every night. If I don’t have a book or can’t read for some reason, I am out of sorts until I can settle down into sleep. Perhaps you read too, or you might lie on your back for a few minutes then roll onto your side just before drifting off. For a few nights skip reading, or lie on your stomach first. You’ll probably miss the reading as much as I do and find it hard to settle down, or you’ll find it nearly impossible to stay on your stomach, constantly wanting to roll over on your back. We are creatures of habit. Nighttime habits aren’t usually considered good or bad – they just are. Comparing yourself to others and using this to inflate or deflate feelings about yourself is not healthy. It is a reliance on untrue appearances and it presupposes that there is a common definition and path for getting the most out of life. Define happiness and success for yourself and plot your own path to meet them. Evaluate and compare your progress along this path. This is the healthy way to use comparisons to propel you along your unique path toward success and happiness. Happy trails.

Learn More

Some links for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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