As social beings, we have always been comparing ourselves to one another and we do so either consciously or unconsciously each time we interact or relate with other people. We rely on our comparisons so as to gauge our own skills, abilities, beliefs and attitudes. Interestingly, this tendency is as natural as any other human emotion and we all engage in it from the time we are young. We compare ourselves to others as a way of making sense of things and to figure out our place in the world. From a not so harmful practice, it soon develops into a damaging habit and no longer serves our purpose as we grow up. Comparing can be helpful and can inspire you to change as long as you have a strong sense of self or self-esteem. But other times, it is quite self-limiting and detrimental to your personal productivity. If you are constantly focusing on what others are achieving and then compare that to your own achievements, it can leave you discontent and unhappy.
Why do we compare to others?
Since early age, our brains are wired to compare and contrast. We are always of the notion that something different improves our lives. So, we gravitate towards and consider the possibilities of having something different. Also, sometimes we have a habit of using reference points to compare things and judge whether something is same or not, better or worse, higher or lower when we are competing with others. We fall into comparison trap when we have misplaced priorities and when we measure our success by what someone else does or doesn’t. It also stems from fear of missing out and peer pressure.
When we are not clear about our talents, skills and abilities or when we fail in our attempt to achieve a certain goal, self-doubt sets in and as a result of that, we tend to compare our achievements as against that of others. We compare in our desire to have what others have or to be where others are. Sometimes we tend to compare to make ourselves feel better or to get inspired from someone else’s achievements as this can level up our motivation to improve ourselves. Also, recognising that your abilities are above someone else’s can boost your self-esteem.
Upward vs Downward comparison
Social comparison plays a vital role in the judgments we make about ourselves and in the way we behave. According to Social comparison theory, comparison exists in two forms. Upward comparison. This is when we compare ourselves with those whom we believe are way better than us or those who display positive characteristics. Such comparisons are often based on our desire to improve on the current level of ability. Downward comparison is when we compare ourselves to others whom we think are worse off or who have negative characteristics. This type of comparison is often based on making ourselves feel better about our abilities or to boost our confidence levels. Studies show that
irrespective of whether it is upward or downward, higher the comparison the lower is your level of self-related happiness.
Upward comparison can somehow dim your accomplishments but you can also look upward to learn. For instance, if you feel bad about how well you performed in an exam, you can check out those who did worse to make yourself feel better and avoid those who performed better than you. Or if you believe that you can only and learn from them and not just feel inferior then you can improve yourself to do better. But if you compare upward about things you can’t change then you get stuck. Downward comparison can help us when we think about the things we regret but we cannot change. If you can’t change what you did, then downward comparison helps us gain perspective to move on and reengage in other goals. Even though downward comparison can remind us of our own fortune, it is not good if we are just trying to gain a sense of superiority or avoiding challenging ourselves to do better.
How it impacts your Productivity
As the saying goes ‘To compare is to despair’, comparison need not necessarily be bad in all situations. It can be motivating as well as destructive and mostly depends on what your goal is. If you are comparing for self-assessment, then it is healthy. But if it is to enhance your sense of self, then it can be confusing and often gives you a distorted view of yourself. Comparisons affects your productivity both negatively and positively. Comparison is beneficial when you compare
• To get a different perspective and to understand differences.
• To benchmark the standards and to know what you should aim for.
• To stimulate new ideas or for brainstorming purposes.
• To know what existing standards and to innovate further or to change for better.
• To Self-improve when an upward comparison inspires you to work harder to reach your desired state.
• To seek information and learn because often what we see in our surroundings is more important in our minds than anything else.
But comparison can be the cause of misery and unhappiness when you refer to others lives as standards to model your life or to change yourself just to confirm what others are doing. This can make you feel lost, miserable and often deprives you of your happiness. We tend to measure our self-worth and personal values with others socially. And these comparisons we feel most acutely relate to things we value like appearance, relationships, professional achievements, goals or possessions. Even though we are driven to acquire a precise assessment of ourselves by discerning our abilities and opinions in comparison with those around us, such frequent social comparisons result in feelings of regret, envy, jealousy, guilty, worry and self-doubt.
These feelings play out in other areas of our life negatively where we feel burdened by feelings of inadequacy, insecurity or not being good enough. The comparison trap further fuels,
Negative self-talk. The act of evaluating our lives against someone else’s negatively affects our confidence and quickly turns into negative self-talk of ‘I am not good enough’ ‘I should have achieved more by now’ or ‘I will never achieve what they have.’
Discontent and distraction. Constant evaluation in today’s competitive and busy work cultures not only impairs your interpersonal relationships but also your productivity and motivation. Although we estimate our abilities on the basis of our own performance, our estimates of ourselves are partly in comparison with the performance of others as well. So it will be always an unfair competition whenever you try hard enough because you can always find someone who performs better or who has attained more accomplishments than you.
Self-doubt. Constant comparisons in workplaces or in your personal endeavours leads to doubting your own capabilities and feelings of resentment towards someone else’s success.
Lowers your productivity. When we want to become like someone else or become the present versions of people whose success we want to emulate, we completely overlook the effort or hard work other people went through to achieve their goals. This results in not working to your full potential to put in that much of hard work, time and effort and distracts you from your productive work habits.
Cannot be your authentic self. Comparing is like looking for others approval. This makes you second guess your decisions and clouds your sense of self because of which you cannot bring your unique talents and give your full potential in achieving your goals.
Negative self-perception. As it fuels feelings of insecurities or a constant need of others’ approval, it changes your perception of your personal and professional life and lowers your confidence and self-esteem.
How to free yourself from comparison trap
Now since we know the negatives score more than positives and if you are already self-sabotaging, it’s time to break free from comparing yourself to others and focus on your personal improvement and focus on what you bring to the task and how to hone your success. Here are some ways to break free from comparison trap.
Become self-aware of your insecurities.
The need to compare arises if you are insecure or unsure of yourself. It is perfectly fine to refer to others’ works as benchmarks for your improvement, but it is pointless to base your actions or decisions based on how others do. If your comparison is due to insecurity, gain clarity of your abilities, skills or goals.
Acknowledge your weaknesses and accept them instead of projecting yourself as someone you are not. When we compare, we focus on all of their strengths and achievements and ignore our own. Keep a record of your achievements. It doesn’t matter how big or small they may be. If it is something you are proud of, make a record of it. Avoid comparing with others, especially, in areas that are not comparable to begin with. Be it your values, goals, your appearance and so on. Do not feel compelled to live a life that is just like someone else’s, instead embrace your uniqueness.
Ask yourself questions: What underlying feelings of insecurity that I need to work on? Does my reason for comparison boosts or hinders my confidence? Is this person whom I am comparing with making me feel insecure? Are my goals inspiring me or making me insecure? How often do I acknowledge my strengths and achievements?
Acknowledge your comparison habit
Awareness of yourself is the first step. But the next important thing is to accepting our comparison habit. Accept your thoughts when you catch yourself in the process of comparison. Move the focus from others to gaining insight into yourself. An honest introspection or process of looking inward can help you see what you find. You can decide whether or not they are true or are they just result of you feeling inadequate. You will be better able to see where they may have come from.
Sometimes it is hard to confront your negative thoughts, but eventually you can gain a better perspective. Make improvements and compare your old self to your newer self. Instead of trying to make yourself be like somebody else, try to be an improved version of yourself.
Ask yourself questions: Am I feeling inadequate about myself in certain areas of my life? Are those about skills and abilities I feel I don’t have? What are my expectations? Are they coming from me or from expectations of others? What the comparison with this person is specifically triggering ?
Be your best version
There is no other benchmark of excellence as being your best version is. When you engage in comparisons on social media, you often end up comparing your not-so good moments with others’ best experiences. Instead of getting anxious, remember that we only share a part of our lives and make-believe stories and leave negative experiences. Feel free to let yourself be inspired by others, but without losing your sense of self in fascination.
Appreciate others success because people who are successful are not depleting what you could have but rather they are examples of what can be achieved. Although it might appear as though people are leading an amazing life with no downsides, everyone goes through challenges.
Instead of wishing that you were like someone else, you can always improve on yourself and work on things you are not happy about yourself. Focus on what you want to achieve. The only comparison should be with yourself, against what you were yesterday.
Ask yourself questions: What are the ways to improve myself? How am I doing as compared to my past self? What skills can I develop to attain my desired goals? What are my true objectives in life that are based on my values?
Change your self-perception
Change your perspective of how you view yourself. A distorted self-perception can lead to false expectations and unrealistic goals. Your inner-critic always out all of your perceived inadequacies and often gives you a false sense of self. If so, naming your inner-critic gives it less power and you can recognise it next time when it gets into the driver seat. Empathise with your inner-critic and offer words of encouragement as you would do to comfort a person in crisis.
While comparing we often only see things that we haven’t achieved and overlook the successes that we have had in our lives. What really matters is what you think about your abilities and your set standards. Maintain a balanced perspective of self by reviewing your achievements and skills. Identify your comparison triggers and try to avoid those activities that don’t really add any value to your life.
Ask yourself questions: What kind of comparisons might actually be healthy for me? How do I perceive myself? Who inspires me to live better, in the way that matter the most? How grateful am I for things and people in my life?How focused am I on my strengths? How worthy do I feel about myself?
Focus on your purpose
In today’s digitally connected world it’s easy to get distracted and focus on what you don’t have. When you see someone else get an opportunity that you would love to have, instead of wishing, try to work harder and make an action plan and figure out what exactly you need to be doing to reach that goal.
When you have your own set of talents and abilities with which you can measure your progress and benchmark it, then you can accurately measure your progress rather than comparing to somebody else.
Define your purpose and set clear goals and objectives. Get clarity on your vision to reach and set timeline to work towards it. Remind yourself that comparing to others will add no value to your desired goals. Instead if you authentically want to succeed, you must be willing to invest time and effort in achieving yours. Instead of wasting your resources on comparisons, benchmark the past you against the present you to measure your progress.
Ask yourself questions: What is it that I want to achieve? Is my comparison habit helping me achieve my goals? Why does it matter to me? What do I want to become in the process of achieving what others have? What do I need to do everyday to get to my desired state? What action steps do I need to take to achieve my goals?
Do you often compare your achievements or failures against other people?
What is your motivation for comparing yourself really is? Is it to assess your abilities or skills? Or is it to enhance your sense of self about those abilities? Or is it to verify the beliefs you already hold about those abilities and opinions?
Whom do you most frequently compare yourself to and Why?
How do you respond to others’ success? Do you appreciate achievements of the people you compare yourself to ? Do you feel inspired of their achievements or feel insecure?
Do you strive to reach the standards set by others Or do you have clear goals set for yourself?
What is your purpose? Do you do something because someone else is doing it ? Or is it because you are inspired by others?
Comparisons can be healthy if you are getting inspired and motivated, but always playing to someone else’s scoreboard won’t fulfil your goals or purpose. But if you are willing to do your best with what talents and abilities you possess, you simply can’t be concerned with others. Even though everybody has special gifts and talents to share with the world, no body will use theirs quite the same way you do.
Breaking free from comparison habit is easier said than done. You will experience moments of insecurity and doubt. Work with the above strategies to focus on what you want. Once you stop negatively comparing yourself to others and focus internally, you will find much more freedom and your personal achievements will be more meaningful.