Comparison does not make us better… (with very few exceptions which I will unpack below)
Take a moment now and reflect on the last time you looked at someone else and thought,
“Hmmm…. s/he must [insert thought related to appearance, job, home, status, friendships] “
[insert sigh] [cue emotional yuck]
“And I just… [insert thought related to appearance, job, home, status, friendships] ”
The leap from MUST to the JUST is a plain old emotional health disaster. Actually, the MUST or the JUST without the leap are not helpful either.The MUST infers ASSUMPTIONS. I see ‘x’ and I conclude ‘y’. It MUST be. I know it. Aaaaaand then we are TRAPPED by our assumptions which are fueled by our core beliefs… which may include thoughts like:
“My self and stuff and status and value reeeally are the MOST important…” [ouch]
“I KNOW if I only have __ and ___ and ___ and ___, THEN I will feel satisfied…” [nah]
Whether we compare “up” (i.e. his/her job, looks, status, stuff are so much better) or we compare “down” (i.e. well at least I don’t look, act, have, seem, do that), it hurts our view of self and our view of others.
And as a research-loving psychologist I’m going to share (briefly) how this has been documented empirically. Social comparison theory is attributed to Dr. Festinger’s 1954 publication on the subject. Social comparison theory (per the American Psychological Association) is “the proposition that people evaluate their abilities and attitudes in relation to those of others in a process that plays a significant role in self-image and subjective well-being.”
AND lest that isn’t enough to check our comparison traps, let’s consider how we can also compare our way right into sub-vats of BURNOUT…
[yes, that is “sub-vats” and my definition is: smaller vats of identified toxin leaked from the main vat. And whilst vats of CHOCOLATE bring a particular emotional response, vats of BURNOUT bring another emotional response…]
Generally, whether we compare “upward” (people we see as better off than us) or downward (worse off than us) impacts whether we feel badly as a result. Upward comparisons negatively impact sense of self and downward comparisons may improve (though I would add, not healthily) one’s sense of self (i.e. “at least I’m not…”), though at cost of demeaning another.
There is a difference for our emotional response if we look “upward” and say, “Hmmm, why is it that everyone else gets their dream job, has great relationships and looks amazing? I can’t… could never…will never…” when we COULD say, “Hmmm, so I really could find a job that I love, talk through these relationship issues and start working out to better myself. I’m going to see what I can do!”
So here’s the qualification to my opening statement that comparison does NOT make us better. When we compare upward or downward our emotional response depends on the interpretation we choose with the information we have observed. It is possible to use comparison to motivate self-enhancement but in part, it depends on one’s level of self-confidence to begin with. So if I compare myself to someone with a great job and think, “I can do that too!” and proceed to edit my resume, I’ve used comparison towards self-improvement.
The key question for reflection is:
“How much do I rely on comparison to determine my sense of self?”
Research has shown that the Emotional Exhaustion component of Burnout (Cynicism and Sense of Ineffectiveness/Lack of accomplishment are the other two components) is impacted by the direction of the comparison (upward comparison was related to health complaints and burnout) as well as how much control or autonomy the employee perceives having.
Nurses in a similar study demonstrated that their emotional response to either an upward or downward comparison directly impacted their reported burnout.
So, let’s recap!
- Comparison to others whom we perceive as better/having more OR to others whom we perceive as worse off/having less often negatively impacts our sense of self and well-being.
- Our current sense of self and how we use the information from comparison determines whether it may help or hurt us.
- The emotion attached to our comparisons may depend on direction of comparison (upward/downward) and other assumptions, beliefs, especially “How much do I rely on comparison to evaluate my own status?
How to Compare Less and Content More:
- #GetAwareness! How is comparison hurting you? What might it feel like, look like, sound like to Compare LESS? How might my insecurity be fueling my upward or downward comparison habits? Here at High Places Coaching, we offer assessment and an interpretive “Discovery Session” that includes professional insight related to motivation and recommended tailored-to-you action steps.
- Check Your VISION and PURPOSE. If you’ve not looked at the first post in this series (BeYou!), do so. There are links to exercises that can assist with gaining clarity of purpose.
- GRATITUDE. Did you know that Gratitude has been empirically demonstrated to improve sleep quality, decrease negative mood, increase well-being? If our focus shifts too much on what we don’t have, it can rob us of our thankfulness for what we do have. Gratitude informs Focus which informs Contentment! Whether we can be satisfied in our current situation, status, season. Our default to the negative is changed when we proactively and deliberately bring to mind our own unique skill set, experiences, perspective and accomplishments.
- Contentment at Work. (Yes, it is possible!) Get honest with how much comparison might be impacting discontent at your job. That said, workplace contentment can certainly be challenging when the work is difficult and never-ending, your team/environment is toxic or you’re in a position that isn’t a great fit. A coach can be really helpful in talking this through and foster creativity in how you can foster contentment in your workplace.
- And a Trek Tip specifically for those Enneagram 1’s or 3’s (Enneagram overview) who might find that a comparison of rightness (for the Enneagram 1) or success (for the Enneagram 3) is taking over, what would it be like to accept imperfection today? To see yourself as good enough today?
American Psychological Association. Dictionary of Psychology. “social comparison theory”. Retrieved 3/16/20 from https://dictionary.apa.org/social-comparison-theory
Festinger, Leon. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, Retrieved September 12, 2007, from hum.sagepub.com database. Retrieved for this article 3/15/20 from https://www.humanscience.org/docs/Festinger%20(1954)%20A%20Theory%20of%20Social%20Comparison%20Processes.pdf
Buunk, AP, Zurriaga, R & Peiro, JM. 2010. Stress comparison as a predictor of changes in burnout among nurses. Anxiety Stress Coping, 23(2) : 181-94. doi10.1080/10615800902971521.
Michinov, N. (2005). Social comparison, perceived control and occupational burnout. Applied Psychology 54(1): 99-118. DOI: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.2005.00198.x