A few weeks ago, Jennie and I were sitting at brunch with a group of friends. (Yes, I go to brunch sometimes. I’m not gonna apologize for it; brunch is delightful.) About halfway through our meal, someone brought up the topic of self-comparison.
All of us at the table agreed that we’ve been guilty of this particular behavior, and wondered why — despite our ages and accomplishments — we continued comparing ourselves to other people, even though we knew it was a pointless and often destructive tendency.
That’s when John, who had been quiet throughout this conversation, chimed in.
“Actually, I feel like I compare myself to other people relatively rarely,” he said, with a satisfied smile.
We all looked around at each other, then back at him.
“You mean…compared to other people?” someone else asked.
John stared at us for a moment, then broke into a laugh.
In that moment, we knew that this was one of those secrets we all shared, a habit we just can’t seem to beat, even when it seems like we’ve beat it.
We All Compare Ourselves to Other People
We do this even when the comparisons aren’t meaningful. Even when they make us unhappy. Even when they don’t actually make us better, smarter, or more productive human beings.
And we seem to be doing it more and more — as if this plague of constant self-comparison really only became a phenomenon in the last five years. Which, in a big way, it has, but we’ll get to that in just a minute.
So why do we compare ourselves to other people?
Is there any benefit to seeing how we stack up against others?
And if there isn’t, how can we stop?
Look at Me (Looking at You) (Looking at Me)
We’re designed to understand ourselves. This capacity for self-reflection is one of the defining characteristics of our species. It’s what makes us look up at the stars and ponder our purpose, keeps us from behaving like freshmen on spring break at the office Christmas party, and pushes us to cooperate and compete with the other highly evolved apes we interact with every day.
In other words, we have a fundamental need to evaluate ourselves, and the only way to do that is in reference to something else.
And since we live in a world populated by other life forms that look and behave a lot like us, that something else becomes someone else — other people.
Which is why you’ll compare yourself to a model on the cover of Vogue or the ripped guy in your bootcamp class, rather than your internal standard of beauty or a textbook on human physiology.
When nonsocial concepts aren’t available or compelling enough for comparison — and, spoiler alert, they’re usually not — we’ll start to see how we stack up against other people.
This peculiar drive was first explored seriously 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:
First, to reduce uncertainty in the areas in which they’re comparing themselves.
And second, to learn how to define themselves.
He called this concept social comparison theory, and it’s one of the biggest contributions to the field of social psychology.
What Festinger really nailed was that human beings can’t actually define themselves intrinsically or independently. They can only define themselves in relation to someone else. When it comes to the big questions of Identity and Self and Who the Hell Am I?, we need to look at other people.
But he actually went a bit further than that, and that’s where things really get interesting.
For one thing, Festinger 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.
That means we’re more likely to compare ourselves to a colleague at our level than we are to the CEO, just like we’re more likely to compare ourselves to a runner in our weekly running group than we are to Usain Bolt. The difference between you and Usain Bolt is astronomical, but the difference between you and another amateur runner is probably quite small — which makes them a more attainable, and therefore compelling, comparison.
Festinger also pointed out 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.
In other words, 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.
(If you’ve ever felt a twinge of envy about someone close to you, and then found yourself subtly turning against them in your mind, then this process will sound familiar. It’s a strange script that all of us have running in the background to keep us feeling secure in our positions and self-concepts. Oh, humans.)
Finally — and this is probably the most important thing for us — Festinger pointed out 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.
(Which, if you think about it, helps explain why we pay so much for those SoulCycle classes. We pay because we think the group is important, but we also think the group is important because we pay — and because everyone else is paying, too. Crazy hall of mirrors, right?)
Now, all of this might sound pretty obvious. We know we have a need to compare ourselves. We know we tend to compare ourselves to people who are similar to us. We know that we compare our abilities and our opinions to groups we deem important. And we know that that comparison often dredges up some unpleasant feelings.
So what? Isn’t that just the way we’re designed? And don’t we need to compare ourselves to other people in order to know how we’re doing? Otherwise, why would we become better? Is comparing ourselves to other people really so bad?
To answer them, we need to understand why we’re comparing ourselves in the first place.
Self-evaluation vs. Self-enhancement
For years, I listened obsessively to as many podcasts as I could fit into my day. I’d take walks to Terry Gross, make lunch to an up-and-coming amateur interviewer, and fall asleep to Larry King. In a given week, I’d listen to dozens and dozens of podcasts all across the spectrum, from poor to amazing, niche to mainstream.
All the while, I’d be taking mental notes, picking up tricks and tips, trying to see where I fit in the podcast hierarchy, figuring out how I stacked up against my idols and my peers. I did all this in the name of research, as a way of gathering new skills and measuring my progress along the way.
Sometimes listening to these shows would leave me swollen with excitement and pride. Hah! I’m totally better these guys! I can do this! I’m putting out a kick-ass show!
Other times, listening to them would leave me confused and dejected. Man, I’ve got a lot to learn. I’ll never be as good as these guys. What do they know that I don’t?
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.
Recognizing the difference between these two motivations for comparison is the key to separating out healthy comparison from unhealthy comparison.
Let’s return to the example of the colleague at work.
Say you compare yourself to Andrea in marketing — she’s the same age, has the same position, and has a similar talent and ability. Out of all the people in the department, Andrea’s the most compelling to compare yourself to, because her skill level is comparable and attainable, and because she’s part of a group (your company) whose opinion matters to you.
So when you’re sitting in a meeting with Andrea, you’ll probably find yourself wondering how you stack up. Do I present as well as she does? Do people care what I say as much as they care about what she says? Are my Excel models as solid? Do people find me as trustworthy and insightful? These questions arise automatically and often unconsciously — as if just by being near Andrea, you can’t help but wonder how you compare.
Behind these questions, though, you’ll notice a few different motivations.
One motivation is to understand the objective quality of your work.
When you compare your presentations to Andrea’s, you’re trying to understand whether your presentations are as interesting, and how they could improve. When you study the way the rest of the team responds to her recommendations, you’re trying to gauge whether your colleagues feel similarly about you, and how you might become more authoritative, convincing, or influential.
In that scenario, Andrea becomes a sort of benchmark — a source of feedback you can use to become better. She’s a model for the level of ability you’re striving toward. She’s a way for you to assess yourself against a relevant source of comparison. That’s not only normal, but essential.
A very different motivation behind the comparison to Andrea is to see yourself more favorably.
From this perspective, when you compare yourself to Andrea, you’re looking to her to help build up your sense of self. When you compare your presentations, you’re looking to feel better about your own persona and style. When you study the way your colleagues respond, you’re looking to confirm that you’re the more talented and respected colleague, that people take you as seriously, that you have more authority or influence or charisma in the office.
In other words, you’re not studying Andrea to improve your self-evaluation. You’re studying her to boost your self-esteem. And that is the kind of comparison that gets us into trouble.
As it happens, this kind of comparison often gives us a very distorted view of ourselves. In fact, research has shown that we tend to prioritize feedback that makes us look good and desirable, and ignore feedback that makes us look weak, undesirable or generally “less than.” So even if we “succeed” in making ourselves feel “better,” our brains are often playing a clever trick with the data we’re using to arrive at that conclusion.
As long as self-enhancement is your goal, then comparing yourself to other people will always make you miserable.
Either your comparison will artificially boost your ego, temporarily making you feel superior to the people you’re comparing yourself to, or your comparison will unearth the vulnerabilities you might not want to face, leaving you exposed to familiar feelings of anger, envy, and shame.
Which brings us back to our original question: Is it really so bad to compare ourselves to other people?
The answer is: it depends.
If we’re comparing ourselves for self-assessment, then wondering how we stack up is natural, healthy and often very helpful. I’d even argue that it’s necessary.
But if we’re comparing ourselves for self-enhancement, then this process can quickly become obsessive, toxic, and often very confusing.
The problem is that when we compare ourselves, we’re often doing both simultaneously, without even realizing it.
And oftentimes, we think we’re trying to assess ourselves when we’re actually trying to enhance ourselves — which is how we can justify this destructive habit under the guise of “doing our research,” just as I used to do when I listened to all those podcasts.
That’s a trap some of the highest performers in the world can fall into. And it’s one of the biggest paradoxes of self-improvement.
We need to study other people in order to measure our progress. But by measuring our progress, we often end up inflating ourselves, tearing ourselves down, or toggling between one or the other — often at the expense of the people we’re comparing ourselves to.
And those people, in turn, are almost certainly doing the exact same thing with us. And because no one talks about it, we don’t realize that we’re all comparing ourselves to one another in a bizarre, unstable, often toxic hall of mirrors. No wonder all this comparison makes us miserable!
But there’s another reason that comparing ourselves to other people makes us so unhappy. And it has to do with the ideas we already have about ourselves.
Just Tell Me I Am (What I Already Know I Am)
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 engaging in social comparison since the time we were kids. That means we’ve had years (decades!) to form all kinds of opinions about ourselves — about everything from our professional talents to our social skills, our athletic abilities to our moral standings.
Those 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.
Our self-views are insanely important. They help us make sense of the world around us, and allow us to navigate that world in a way that is safe, coherent, and stable.
For example, if you have a self-view that says I am a capable professional, then that belief is likely to help you to walk into your office with confidence, handle a difficult meeting, and take on a tough new project.
Alternatively, if you have a self-view that says I don’t know enough to be in my position, then that belief will probably make the office a stressful place, encourage you to take a backseat in meetings, and shrink away from more responsibilities.
But here’s what’s interesting: no matter what self-view you happen to hold, that opinion is allowing you to make sense of your world.
With one belief, your world is a positive, promising, growth-oriented place. With the other, it’s a self-conscious, taxing, demanding one.
Either way, the views you hold about yourself will keep that world consistent. And to your mind, it doesn’t matter if those views are totally accurate. It only matters that they work. And they “work” by propping up that self-concept and keeping your world stable and consistent.
So it’s no surprise that these self-views are very precious to us. We need them. And because we need them, our minds become very anxious when those beliefs get threatened. We need to constantly keep feeding them, reinforcing them, building them up.
Because who would we be if we didn’t think these thoughts about ourselves?
What would the world be like without them?
It’s like driving across a rickety bridge every day, knowing that the bridge is in a state of disrepair. The thought of tearing it down and building a new one might be the smartest thing to do, but hey, it’s getting me across, and it’s been getting me across for years, so, you know, maybe let’s just leave the bridge alone. I like this bridge. I know this bridge. Don’t mess with my bridge, man.
So we end up protecting these views about ourselves very carefully. To do that, we seek out feedback that confirms that the office is friendly and exciting or stressful and hostile, depending on which self-view we happen to hold.
Which means that when we compare ourselves to other people, we’re often comparing ourselves with a certain opinion already in mind.
We’re not acting like a blank slate, waiting for comparison feedback to tell us who we are. We already know who we are — or, rather, think we know who we are — and then compare ourselves to others in a way that helps confirm that preexisting belief.
That allows us to maintain the ideas we have about ourselves, so we don’t rock the mental boat too much. It also helps make us stable and predictable to one another, so that when we come across a new person — or interact with an old one — we can predict how they’ll behave and decide how to behave toward them in return. William Swann developed this theory, called self-verification, which was another major contribution to social psychology.
So What Does This All Mean for Us?
Well, two things. Plus some really great news if comparing yourself is making you unhappy.
First, when we compare ourselves to other people, we’re not really comparing ourselves to other people.
What we’re actually doing is comparing our ideas about ourselves to other people — then using our observations about those people to validate those preexisting ideas.
If you think about it that way, you’ve never really compared yourself to another person in your entire life. You’ve only compared your idea about yourself to another person.
What’s more, the last few years have added a whole new level of abstraction to this process in the form of social media.
Now, when we compare ourselves to other people, we’re actually just comparing ourselves to versions of other people — the versions they choose to put out into the world. We’re comparing our blooper reel to someone else’s highlight reel, and judging ourselves against that prettified proxy. This isn’t news, but it’s worth remembering. People’s digital selves are not their real selves, no matter how much time they spend on Instagram or use the word “authentic” or hashtag their photos #nofilter!
That’s why comparing yourself to other people these days feels so much worse than it used to.
Not only are you comparing your idea about yourself to another person, you’re comparing your idea about yourself to someone else’s idea about themself!
And since that person is also comparing their idea about themself to you (and your idea about yourself, and hundreds of other people and their ideas), a huge chunk of life is really just ideas comparing themselves to other ideas.
Which is actually pretty hilarious, once you see it for what it is.
Second, when we compare ourselves to other people, we’re usually just confirming the ideas we already have about ourselves.
In other words, we compare ourselves to other people to verify the self-concepts we already hold, not to develop new or accurate ones.
We look at Bridgette in SoulCycle and think, Yep, I knew it, she’s way more fit than me, I’ll never be in that kind of shape. Or we look at Trevor in marketing and think, Wow, his skills are paying off. If he can get ahead, I can too, I just have to keep putting in the time.
Since the human mind seeks stability and coherence above all else, we’re almost always using those observations to confirm that we’re “right” about the people we think we are. Because if we were truly honest about the comparison data we received, we’d have to rewrite all of our mental models about ourselves and the world.
A person convinced that she’s the greatest employee on earth would have to adjust to the idea that she still has a lot to learn, do, and prove. A person convinced that he’ll never find a partner would have to adjust to the idea that he’s worthwhile, in control, and responsible for his relationships.
For most of us, rewriting those fundamental self-concepts would be terrifying. So we just go on verifying the ones we already have, and we don’t even realize it.
Which is also kind of funny, if you think about it. We spend all this time obsessing about how we stack up against other people, but in many cases, we’ve already made up our minds!
So if comparing yourself to other people is making you miserable, then ask yourself what your motivation for comparing yourself really is.
Is it to assess your abilities and opinions?
Is it to enhance your sense of self about those abilities and opinions?
Or is it to verify the beliefs you already hold about those abilities and opinions?
Many of us will be surprised by the motivations lurking beneath the self-comparison we’re engaged in on a daily basis.
What seems like self-assessment can subtly turn into self-enhancement when we realize we don’t quite stack up the way we’d like.
What seems like self-enhancement can turn out to be self-verification when we realize that we’re seeking out comparisons that reflect the people we believe we are.
And what seems like self-verification can suddenly become true self-assessment when we realize that we’ve only been trying to protect ourselves.
But no matter what your motivation really is, at the end of the day, the buck ultimately stops with you. And that is great news.
Because if self-comparison is making you miserable, then it’s only because of the reasons you’re doing it in the first place, and the ideas you choose to form as as result — both of which are, over time, totally within your control!
Still, we’ll never stop comparing ourselves. Not really. This instinct to self-evaluate, to look to other people for information about ourselves, is deeply wired into our species.
But you can notice the tendency to self-compare, and just by noticing it, refrain from doing it when it’s not truly productive.
And you can investigate your motives for self-comparison, and make sure that you’re comparing yourself for reasons that are productive and healthy, rather than egoistic and toxic.
And, with enough self-awareness, patience, and kindness, you can eventually learn to use that comparison not to unfairly tear yourself down or artificially build yourself up, but to find out — and I mean really find out, for real — if the ideas you hold about yourself are actually accurate.
Starting with the one idea that brought you to this article in the first place.
I need to compare myself to other people in order to be happy.