Gabriel Mizrahi (@GabeMizrahi) joins us for this deep dive into why we all compare ourselves with other people, the pros and cons that arise from this, and what we can do to filter out the unhealthy comparisons we inevitably make.

What We Discuss with Gabriel Mizrahi:

  • Why we all compare ourselves to others and what purpose this comparison serves.
  • Why we tend to compare ourselves to people who are similar to us (often to the detriment of our relationships).
  • The two types of comparisons we make between ourselves and others.
  • Strategies to stop the unhealthy types of comparisons we make and how we can make ourselves better in the process.
  • Do we really need to compare ourselves to other people in order to be happy?
  • And much more…

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No matter how good things are going in our lives, it’s human nature to compare how well we’re doing in comparison to others. But why? What possible purpose does this serve?

In this deep dive, we examine why we’re in a constant state of self-evaluation against others around us, who we tend to scrutinize most in our circles, the two types of comparisons we make, and how we can put a stop to our most unhealthy comparisons. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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More About This Show

Loath as we may be to admit it, we all compare ourselves to others — just as those others are comparing themselves to us. And while we have a nagging suspicion this practice is counterproductive even as we do it, the habit persists.

What possible purpose could this serve?

The easiest explanation is that, as human beings, we’re designed to understand ourselves and our place in the world. Even if we’re not consciously pondering the meaning of life as we engage in our daily activities, our underlying programming is. It does this by examining who we are in reference to something — or in this case, someone — else.

Social Comparison Theory

This drive was first explored in earnest by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger in 1954. Festinger basically said that people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to other people for two reasons:

  1. To reduce uncertainty in the areas in which they’re comparing themselves.
  2. To learn how to define themselves.

He called this concept social comparison theory.

Festinger further pointed out that the tendency to compare ourselves to another person decreases as the difference between our opinion or ability and the other person’s increases — in other words, the more similar we are to another person in some way we think is important, the more we tend to compare ourselves to that person.

This is why we’re more likely to compare ourselves to a colleague in our field who’s roughly at the same level careerwise than the person who invented our field, or someone in our running group rather than Olympian Usain Bolt — the comparison is more relatable.

“You compare yourself to somebody who’s attainable and who’s in your vicinity,” says Gabriel. “That probably has evolutionary roots, right? We probably compare ourselves to people in the tribe, not people way ‘out there.'”

Festinger also noted that when we stop comparing ourselves to other people, we often experience hostility and derogation toward those people — as long as continuing to compare ourselves to them brings unpleasant consequences. That is, if we stop comparing ourselves to that super fit runner in our running group because it’s making us feel bad, then we’ll tend to deal with those feelings by mentally tearing them down. If we can’t deal with the negative feelings of the comparison, then we’ll swap them for more “helpful” ones — anger, hostility, or a tendency to simply write the other person off.

Finally, Festinger observed that the more important we think some particular group of people is, the more pressure we’ll feel to conform to that group in our abilities and opinions. In other words, we’ll feel more pressure to kick ass in our SoulCycle class than we will to perform like a random group of cyclists on the street. The difference is that we think our SoulCycle class is a more important comparison group, whereas the ability of some random cyclists on the street probably matters very little.

What’s Your Motivation?

So if comparison with others is just part of our wiring, how can we do it in a way that doesn’t make us miserable? First, by examining why we’re making a particular comparison.

Jordan mentions how he would listen to other podcasts obsessively for years — on the surface as research into how he might improve upon the good techniques he was hearing to enhance his own interviews, but also (as painful as it might be to admit it) to make himself feel better when encountering work he considered subpar to his own.

“It took me years to realize that by comparing myself to other people, I was actually doing two things: trying to figure out how good I actually was, and trying to make myself feel better,” says Jordan.

Recognizing the difference between these two motivations for comparison is the key to separating out healthy comparison from unhealthy comparison.

Tell Me Something I Already Know

When we compare ourselves to other people, we tend to think of it like fishing: We cast our nets around the people we choose to compare ourselves to, check out the catch of observations that comes back, and then use those observations to form an opinion about ourselves (whether we’re as good, as smart, as talented, as good-looking, and so on).

In reality, the process is much more complicated.

Because when we compare ourselves to other people, we almost always have some preexisting idea about how we stack up.

“Remember, we’ve been doing social comparison since the time we were kids,” says Gabriel. “So for most of us, we have decades of these ideas about ourselves that are built up from self comparison — they’re already established.”

These opinions are what make up our self-concept and self-esteem. They’re like the scaffolding of our selves, the pylons propping up our identities. Psychologists call these core beliefs self-views, and we carry them around with us wherever we go — whether they reflect positively or poorly upon us.

“Whatever the beliefs are, it’s more important to the human mind to keep those beliefs stable and consistent than have to actually revisit and rewrite them,” says Gabriel. “We seek out feedback that confirms those views by comparing ourselves to other people — with that opinion already in mind. That motivation is called self-verification, and it’s the third motivation for comparing yourself.”

Three Motivations for Comparing Yourself

To review, here are the three motivations for comparing yourself to others.

  1. Self-Assessment: “Finding out how you stack up so you know objectively how good or talented or correct you are,” says Gabriel.
  2. Self-Enhancement: “Which is designed to make us feel better about ourselves,” Gabriel says.
  3. Self-Verification: “I already know how I feel about myself, but I’m going to go out there and confirm it for myself so I know whatever I believed already is true,” says Gabriel.

What Does It All Mean?

“One key takeaway for me is that when we compare ourselves to other people,” says Jordan, “we’re not really comparing ourselves to other people. We’re comparing our ideas about ourselves — or our preconceived notions or subjective, weird little labels we put on ourselves in each little category — that’s what we’re comparing with other people. And then we’re using our observations about those with whom we compare ourselves to validate those preexisting ideas.”

“It’s easy to forget that while we’re comparing ourselves to other people,” says Gabriel, “other people are comparing themselves to us. Everybody does it, so we may not be aware of it…but every single person does this to somebody…that also adds a whole weird layer to it, because we could be comparing ourselves to somebody who in turn is comparing herself to us.”

So what do we do to strike a balance?

We can investigate our motives for self-comparison, and make sure that we’re comparing ourselves for reasons that are productive and healthy rather than egoistic and toxic.

With enough self-awareness, patience, and kindness, we can eventually learn to use this comparison not to unfairly tear ourselves down or artificially build ourselves up, but to find out if the ideas we hold about ourselves are accurate.


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