Breaking the comparison habit

by Bernadette Healy


When was the last time that you compared yourself with another? Who did you choose for the comparison? If you are like most, you probably compare yourself to other people all the time and choose the most outstanding person/ people who you know! (Or, worse, do so with someone who you don’t know at all, thereby guaranteeing that your conclusions can never be validated).

If you do know them, It is quite likely that you don’t know them very well, at least not well enough for them to share with you their own set of self-doubts (yes, most people do have them – the very few people I have met who seemed to be free of self-doubt also interestingly, seemed to be lacking in empathy – always a scary thing!). Or perhaps you are comparing yourself with someone who you know quite well but for whom you have always had an idealized view, with regard to a particular skill set (likely to be your least developed and most anxiety-inducing to use). The idealisation is an example of cognitive distortion, in this case most likely through a non-random selection of information about the other person, which is used as the basis of the comparison while all potentially refuting information is discounted or ignored.

In other words social comparisons are usually made in quite a biased manner and in a way which can, predictably, leave us feeling worse about ourselves at the end of the process. It is often a very unhelpful practice and can be both personally limiting and destructive. (It can also be destructive when others do the comparison for us, for example: use of comparisons by parents towards their offspring; the use of comparison in the workplace under the guise of promoting healthy competition when the aim is destabilisation of team dynamics; or the use of comparison as a form of bullying, for example, ‘I have known several people who have done the same course as you are doing and none of them had the trouble that you seem to be having’, or ‘I deal with many … and none of them do x the way you do’, or ‘so and so did that task last year without any complaints/ in less time than you are suggesting/ with fewer resources’ etc.)

The urge to compare oneself can be helpful if you are aware of what you are in the process of doing and stop to consider what it is about. Why are you making the comparison? Are you lacking motivation and trying to use the comparison as a way of increasing your drive? Perhaps some time spent considering why you are less motivated than in the past might be a more useful exercise. Are you neglecting to honour something in yourself such as a particular ambition or interest area? Such neglect can lead to dissatisfaction, irritation and loss of focus and may present as unfavourable comparisons with those who have achieved in the desired area/s.

Making comparisons can also be a result of low self esteem which can present as frequent comparisons with negative conclusions which feed back into the self esteem problem in an unhealthy cycle of emotional reactivity.

There are times when positives can result from comparisons. Comparisons can provide a reality check against a personal bias in thinking; perfectionists who conclude that they are a failure as a result of making a mistake may benefit by being informed about the performance of people with similar levels of experience including the inevitability of mistakes. Such a comparison could encourage more willingness to ‘have a go’ – which is something perfectionists are often loathe to do for fear of failure. Making a comparison within a well-defined situation in which a specific, preferable and achievable behaviour is observed can lead to enhanced performance, for example, where ethical and values-driven behaviour is witnessed by subordinates in their leaders, such behaviours are more likely to be adopted within that workplace. Occasionally comparisons can be a wake-up call such as when observing someone displaying resilience in the fact of a difficult life circumstance.

Making comparisons can however be a risky business, and one that can quickly plummet someone to a demotivated, helpless state. While this is more likely to occur for those with an existing tendency towards low self-esteem, it is still a risk for most of us. There is increasing pressure to model oneself on some illusory mega-star but the most helpful comparison for helping to keep on track is with oneself!