2 Subtle Signs That Constant Comparison Is Crippling You

“The mind is a comparison device.” — Nick Chater

It’s hard to argue with that. Really hard. Because the mind is a comparison device. When you think of what to have for breakfast this morning, what are you doing other than comparing cereal to toast? You are sifting through previous memories looking for evidence of which one is better. You are simply comparing one to the other.

It’s part of the fabric of our brain.

“Happiness is found when you stop comparing yourself to others” — Anonymous

Actually, it’s not. Or rather, the story isn’t that clear cut. It turns out that happiness is partly derived from your ability to compare yourself to others. I know, that’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow but it’s true. All this time productivity gurus have been telling you to not compare yourself, to stay in your own lane and now I’m telling you that comparison is part of what makes you happy.

But don’t worry, it’s not all bad news.

What is Comparison?

Social Psychologist Leon Festinger was perhaps the first person to make sense of this whole social comparison thing. He was the first guy to describe what social comparison is:

“We engage in this comparison process as a way of establishing a benchmark by which we can make accurate evaluations of ourselves.”

In that, you and I compare ourselves in order to find our place in the world. It might feel like you engage in this activity to beat yourself up, and sometimes you do, but what you’re really trying to understand is where you fit in this world. We all are.

One of the most fascinating conversations going on in this space is this idea of reference points. In order to be able to compare, you must be able to reference a group or an individual. A reference point is a target. It’s like saying: “I’m going to measure myself against this person”. Most typically this won’t be just one person, it’ll be a group.

  • The people you went to school with.
  • Work colleagues.
  • Archenemies.

People that you have a sufficient amount in common with to draw comparisons from. And so the pond of which you look to in order to compare yourself becomes then incredibly important for your happiness. If you want to feel good about yourself, comparing yourself to those that have less than you can make you feel great. If you want to feel bad about yourself, compare yourself to those that have more.

This can serve as motivation or self-depreciation, most likely depending on the day and your mood.

An important note though. Festinger was the father of social comparison. He studied the ways in which we all compare on a daily basis and what happiness that brings us. Although, in the end, it turns out that even Festinger wasn’t all that happy with his own progress:

“Forty years in my own life seems like a long time to me and while some things have been learned about human beings and human behavior during this time, progress has not been rapid enough; nor has the new knowledge been impressive enough. And even worse, from a broader point of view we do not seem to have been working on many of the important problems.”- Festinger

The lesson? Pick your pond well and be kind to yourself.

Why Does the Human Brain Need to Compare

There are a whole hosts of reasons why we might compare ourselves to other people. You might think it’s to make us feel bad but actually, there are huge upsides to comparing yourself to someone else:

  • It helps with your own identity.
  • It helps you understand risks.
  • It gives you a good idea of what level of effort is required.

If you didn’t compare and compare yourself to others, how would you know what good looks like? How would you know how long something might take? How would you know when to quit and when to stick with it?

It might sound like solid advice to avoid comparing yourself to other people but actually, there is a lot of benefit in comparing yourself. There is a lot to be learnt from our fellow humans.

But of course, this has a negative side also. So what are the signs that maybe you are overindulging this cognitive function? Well, there are two:

1. You Are Struggling to Take Action

Stuck in that place between a rock and a hard place. You want to move. You really want to take action but for some reason, some painful reason, you can’t muster up the motivation, want, need, [fill in the blank] to do it.

“Personality begins where comparison ends.” — Karl Lagerfeld

So you remain there, in the place of ‘in-between’ for a while. For the longest while and then you become regretful that you can’t seem to move and you’ve been here for too long. We’ve all been there. Seriously, I’ve been here more times than I care to admit. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it starts and ends with comparison.

If this is the case, there are few things you might want to try to take your mind of this constant need to compare. Things that the Minimalists recommend are a good place to start, things like:

  • Being aware of how harmful constant comparison can be.
  • Desire the bigger things in life: love, mindfulness, happiness.
  • Take a walk.
  • Use yourself as your measuring stick.

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” — Steve Furtick

Also, added to this, there is a lot of good things to say about having a social media detox. Let’s try this thought experiment. How many times has your comparison muscle been induced by overconsumption of social media? Getting off social media helps because of it:

  • Reduces the number of reference points you have.
  • Stops you from thinking the ‘highlight reel’ is real life.
  • Allows you to focus on yourself instead.

Comparison is an inherently good thing. Over comparison is not.

2. Second-Guessing Yourself

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”- Theodore Roosevelt

Comparison makes sense at the point of decision. Let’s say you want to decide whether it’s a burger or salad for lunch. At that moment, you must compare in order to make a decision. But after the event, after the decisions are made, arguably there is no reason to compare.

But you sometimes fall into that trap.

“…maybe I should have done that instead.”

“…what if I changed my mind.”

“…maybe I should rethink that again.”

In the end, whatever you pick, you will never know what the other option brings. I don’t mean that to sound depressing but it’s true. If you choose the burger for lunch over the salad, you won’t be having the salad. What I’m trying to say is that you can live both decisions in parallel to pick.

You must pick with the best information you have to hand and accept that as you continue on in life, you learn as you go. Maybe you got it wrong or maybe you got it right. Either way, you can never experience the outcomes of both so don’t sweat it.

“I make a decision at 51%.” — Barack O’barma

This extends to many life decisions. The best advice out there is to use what information you have, judge as fairly as possible, preferably in a neutral mood, and make the decision. Then reflect to learn not to beat yourself up.

Frame any reflection on a decision as a learning opportunity, not as a way to go ten rounds with yourself.

Final Thoughts

Comparison isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s a helpful tool to help you deduce lots of things in life from risk, preferences and social status. All of these are important factors when living in the modern 21st century.

Yet, like anything, too much of something can become problematic. It can be all-consuming and mean that you get overwhelmed pretty quickly. Those 2 signs that I’ve found are:

  • Struggling to make a decision.
  • Second-guessing yourself.

Luckily there are lots of things you can do if you find yourself falling into this trap. Although, if you take one thing away from this article it’s this:

Picking your pond really matters.

Make sure you are comparing yourself to those that you want to compare to, those that are similar enough to you to warrant a comparison. Where you rank in that group is really important and if you are constantly picking unfair reference groups, it’s likely you won’t end up very happy at the end of it.

And remember:

“Action is the foundational key to all success. — Pablo Picasso”