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The Comparison Trap - 1


“Comparison is the thief of joy” – Theodore Roosevelt

The sentiment expressed in Roosevelt’s quote can be very well understood by anyone who’s ever been in comparison mode (that could possibly be every single one of you reading this blog!) When we are in comparison mode, how many of you have ever felt joy? Honestly, joy is perhaps the least likely emotion that might accompany comparison, right?

As humans, we are naturally prone to comparisons because this phenomenon begins quite early in our lives. As young kids, we might have experienced the feeling of being compared to others – by parents, teachers, relatives, friends, peers, etc. As we grow into adults, we start comparing ourselves to others. Sometimes the comparisons might be in a favourable light and at other times, the comparisons could be unfavourable. Either way, it leads to feelings that are unhealthy – a sense of superiority or inferiority. An arrogant person or a bitter person can never be an emotionally healthy human being. Whether your comparison results in a feeling of “Oh, I’m so much better than this guy!” or “How does she do it? I’ll never be as good as her!”, there’s little doubt that “the thief of joy” has taken residence in your head and is busy ransacking the place of all joy, happiness, and contentment!

“If you continuously compete with others you become bitter but if you continuously compete with yourself, you become better.”

So why is it so difficult to not fall into comparison mode?

SOCIAL COMPARISON THEORY

Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed in his social comparison theory that the human species engages in comparison as a way of evaluating ourselves, like a benchmarking process. We get to know more about our own abilities, attitudes, or skills by comparing ourselves to our peers. Interestingly, our comparisons are usually restricted to people with whom we feel a sense of belonging, like a peer group, family, or colleagues. For instance, as a budding life coach, I’m not likely to compare myself to someone like Tony Robbins and go “How come he is able to influence millions of people all around the globe? What has he got that I haven’t?”. My comparison is more likely to be with a fellow coach in my peer circle and I might think “Wow! I wish I could be as good as him in the way he uses social media to network”. A runner in a group that runs regularly in Barry Curtis Park (A plug for our neighbourhood park here…. Auckland Council, take note 😊) will compare himself to his fellow runner, not Usain Bolt! I recall my sales engineer days when I was in perpetual comparison mode, egged on by sales targets and company bosses constantly pushing for more sales. I was always comparing myself to other sales engineers, both within my company and outside in the market with competitors’ salespeople.

TYPES OF COMPARISONS

Festinger’s theory contends that human beings can only define themselves in relation to other people. Wonder if that is why the age-old existential question “Who am I?” is so difficult to answer as we seem to be incapable of defining ourselves independently. Social comparison can work in two ways –

1. Upward social comparison – This is when we compare ourselves to those who we believe are better than us. This type of comparison can lead to two kinds of thoughts, emotions, or outcomes. One is where we might want to improve ourselves to reach the level of the person we are comparing ourselves to, or even go past them. This is one possible benefit of comparison if we’re prepared to learn, as it could lead to personal growth. If comparison can be seen in this positive light, then “the thief of joy” might be entitled to a change of title and live inside us as “the giver of motivation”! The second outcome of upward social comparison is envy, jealousy, and bitterness – obviously a very undesirable outcome that can only lead to disappointment and frustration.

2. Downward social comparison – This happens when we compare ourselves to people we believe are worse off than us. This is kind of like an “artificial boost to self-esteem” exercise. The “at least I’m not as bad as him/her” attitude might help us feel better about our talents, achievements, or life situation, even if only temporarily.

I’ve never been to an old students’ meet of any of the educational institutes that I had the honour of studying at. Somehow it never materialised as I had constantly been moving from one place to another until I came to Auckland 23 years ago and dropped anchor. But I tend to think there’d be a lot of upward and downward social comparisons at these gatherings – a “compare-fest” 😉!!

As an aside, I must mention a conversation with a participant in one of my early coaching workshops. While on the topic of affirmations and gratitudes, I used the proverb “I complained I had no shoes until I met the man who had no feet” to press home the point of being grateful. This participant raised a question about whether this proverb was an example of downward social comparison. What do you think? My line of thought is that being grateful for what we have need not be in relation to anyone else. Of course, there’ll always be people worse off than us just as there’ll always be people better off than us. The true ‘attitude of gratitude’ is just being thankful for what we have, not necessarily compared to what others have or do not have, a feeling exemplified by the following quote -

“A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it; it just blooms” – Zen Shin

Do you have any thoughts on gratitude and social comparisons that you might like to share?

I find the topic of comparison very interesting and I believe with the growth of the internet and social media, comparison has taken on a new dimension far beyond what Prof Festinger might have envisaged when he came up with the social comparison theory in 1954.

In the second part of this blog, we’ll discuss how comparison has evolved (or should that be regressed?) in today’s internet age and what, if anything, could we do to avoid being completely sucked in by the comparison trap.

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