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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

C is for Comparison

“When we compare ourselves with others, "We lose our individuality and rob the world of our uniqueness" Laura Miles

This can be true, but others have said that comparison has helped them in life so what is comparison and is it a good thing or a bad thing or none of the above?

Dialectics are useful when considering the subject of comparison. A dialectic occurs when two seemingly conflicting things are true at the same time. Dialectics are concerned with balance between opposites, removing ‘black’ and ‘white’ thinking and encouraging us to find a middle perspectives where more than one view point can coexist. It is not concerned with absolutes but continually looks to improve understanding by seeing what other views could be applied. This open-minded approach leads to more flexible thinking and a never ending spirit of inquiry which is a characteristic of a growth mindset.

In fact, the word comparison is simply concerned with evaluating two or more things (physically or contemplatively) by identifying the relevant, comparable characteristics of each thing and then determining which characteristics are similar or different to the other and to what degree. There is no emotional attachment involved, it is a neutral act and is about looking at facts but so often when we think of comparison, we think of the negative associations i.e. when comparison has been taken one step further and judgments have been applied.

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Unknown

We are all unique and as such we have our own specific mix of strengths and weaknesses. Comparison, in its correct usage highlights our unique qualities but when judgment enters the mix, it can cause you to forget about the good things in your life and focus on what you don't have instead. If it is not addressed, comparison with others plus judgment can make you feel inferior and can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

Social comparison theory is based upon the idea that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. The theory was developed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. It states that humans can't define themselves independently, but only in relation to other individuals. So, in a sense, we can turn this around to give ourselves another perspective i.e. comparing our unique behaviours, opinions and feelings to another person’s unique set is a useful tool to help us discover who we are.

Comparison is nothing new, it has been happening since early times when members of tribes used comparison to choose leaders or spot weaker members of a group and adjusted their roles accordingly. Judging people, (not being judgmental) is a natural and important part of human nature and of society. It is important to be able to evaluate the people and situations in your life in order to be aware of any level of risk that they may pose to yourself, your loved ones or your community. Comparisons can also help us evaluate our lives honestly and help us see where we would like to get to in the future.

Being judgmental , or being on the receiving end of someone else’s judgmental comments by contrast, affects your emotions negatively, causing your thoughts to spiral and has a less than helpful effect on your physical health but when we are able to develop awareness (of when we're being judgmental) and practice non-judgment or learn not to heed other’s unhelpful comments or perhaps turn them around to work for us rather than against us ,it can change our life in many positive ways.

When we compare ourselves to others we tend to focus on the differences rather than the similarities. This can lead us to compare ourselves with others in two distinct ways:

upwardly (when we compare ourselves to those we think are better than us) or downwardly (when we compare ourselves to those we consider worse of than us).

When comparison happens ‘upwardly’ we can become dissatisfied with our lives and feel we ‘should’ be experiencing a different type of life and that the world somehow ‘owes us’ so our emotions are affected negatively and our satisfaction, self-worth and well-being goes down hill.

With ‘downwardly’ comparison the opposite can happen and we can feel pleased and grateful for our circumstances and it can inspire us to continue working hard so we don’t end up in a worse position.

The effects of these two types of comparison can actually work in the opposite ways too e.g. we can use upward comparison as a tool to measure our progress and as a motivator to inspire us to improve ourselves and downward comparison can be useful to help us relax and know that we are doing well and don’t need to strive incessantly to become better.

Either way comparing ourselves to others has been proven to have an effect on our self-image, self-esteem and motivation. The worst effect comparison can have on our well-being is when we compare our lesser qualities to someone’s best qualities. ie.. our ‘bad day’ to someone else’s ‘good day’, our performance after a few sessions compared with someone’s performance who has been doing something for years. Social media provides lots of opportunities for such comparison so it is important to remember not to compare our ordinary daily lives to someone’s highlight reel

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde

The reality is that we are all unique and we have all had unique life experiences which have led to our current circumstances. Sometimes people know certain things about us so they think they know how we have got to be where we are, but a lot of the time people don’t know how, or why we are as we are or where we are when they take a cursory glance at our lifestyle to compare their lives to ours.

At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own lives and the words we use against ourselves or to encourage ourselves. We cannot be responsible for the words others use e.g. “You’ll never be as good as…”, “They have more talent, look healthier, are funnier, nicer…...etc than you” etc but we do have a responsibility to ourselves to set boundaries, to make a conscious choice to move on, taking the steps necessary and not allowing other’s hurtful comments to affect us.

There is a well known phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side” but in truth, ‘The grass is greener where you water it’.

Our world would be a better place if we learnt to strive to be more curious and less judgmental when we find ourselves making comparisons and better still our lives would feel easier if we remembered this spin on the phrase which I thought gives us a useful way to focus our attention instead:

“I’m too busy working on my own grass to notice that yours is greener.” Unknown

Judgment serves a purpose but whenever that judgment gets in the way of showing up as the best version of ourselves and allowing others to do so too, then we retain a fixed, rather than a growth mindset, and we are unable to have healthy connections with each other.

"The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention". Sharon Salzberg

We have a natural negativity bias which means that something positive will generally have less of an impact on us than something equally emotional but negative which is why it makes sense to pro-actively look for positive opportunities and focus on things that will give us positive experiences and allow us to flourish.

When we change our perspective and we focus our attention on what we do have and are grateful for it, it gives us more awareness and satisfaction. By putting aside our social masks and our ego and having the courage to show up as our authentic selves is also the best gift we can give ourselves and others. When we put aside fear and have the courage to be ourselves, communicating authentically with others we flourish and have better relationships based on honesty, trust, understanding, unconditional love and are happier as a result. We feel a sense of belonging when we have these good connections with others and we feel seen, accepted and valued for who we are ‘warts and all’.

There may be things that we wish were different in our lives, but we know that being resentful or jealous is not going to improve our situation and make our world a happier place. When we celebrate the success of others and champion and encourage them we increase our own sense of belonging and connection which gives us a feeling of security and support, inclusion and identity and a sense of purpose.

When thinking about comparison it is useful to:

Focus on what we have, not what we don’t have

Be more curious and less judgmental

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude

Celebrate others’ success

Set boundaries

Surround ourselves with uplifting, encouraging, motivating people

Rediscover your inner sparkle by doing more of what brings you joy

Love yourself for who you are, warts and all, and celebrate just being you

“Personality begins where comparison leaves off. Be unique. Be memorable. Be confident. Be proud.” Shannon L. Alder

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