The Comparison Paradox

9min read

How comparison (to the wrong things) can kill your mojo

Do you ever catch yourself scrolling through Instagram and suddenly feel like you don’t measure up? Maybe you doubt the ideas you bring to the boardroom table. Or perhaps you see your colleagues getting ahead while you feel left behind.

You are not alone.

Comparison is something all humans do — including me! In fact, we’re hard-wired to do it.

While comparison can invite jealousy into our lives and harm us mentally (and physically), comparison can also be a useful tool to motivate us and drive us to achieve greater things.

It’s In Our DNA

While humans have evolved and changed over time, there are some pre-modern qualities that seem to follow us along the evolutionary path. Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, put forward several hypotheses about social comparison, not least of which was that

“Humans have a basic drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities and that people evaluate themselves through objective, nonsocial means.”

Why? To reduce uncertainty in the areas in which we are comparing ourselves and to learn how to define ourselves.Interestingly, the less someone is like you, the less likely you are to compare yourself to them.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans have developed systems to protect themselves. Each system is functionally orderly in that perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes work together to reduce costs of potential threats.

In part, this can reveal why we might see other groups as a threat to us. This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t many additional social, economic, or political layers that affect how we see other groups of people. But it is important to consider that we tend to compare ourselves to someone close to us in social class, economic status, political leaning, or physical appearance.

A good friend of mine once said, “No one is jealous of the Queen? She’s just too weird.”

I laughed at first, but I realized how profoundly truthful the statement is. Nobody can compare themself against — or feels jealous of — someone who is so wholly different. For the record, I love the Queen, the rest of the lot is another thing entirely.

Think about the last time you noticed yourself comparing your life against someone else’s. You may have looked at your neighbor’s expensive new car and wondered why they’re farther ahead than you. You may have questioned why your colleague got the promotion you were both vying for and you did not. You may have noticed that your friend has been going to the gym less consistently, but their physical development has progressed faster than yours.

We compare ourselves to those most similar to us, like our neighbors, colleagues, friends or family. And often, we do this as a way to serve our own interests of self-enhancement and to improve our self-esteem. Our brains are the ultimate trickster. We may interpret, distort or blatantly ignore information we gain through social comparison that makes us see ourselves more positively and further our self-enhancement goals. We also will choose to make upward (comparing ourselves to someone better off) or downward (comparing ourselves to someone worse off) comparisons, depending on which strategy will further our self-enhancement goals.

Everybody’s Doing It

Trust me when I tell you that nobody is free of comparison-driven jealousy. When I began recording Collisions YYC, I was interviewing some of the top business leaders and executives in Calgary, Alberta. Part of my brain told me, “These are high-performers! They give significantly to charities. They’re leading innovation. They’ve accomplished so much!” I was left wondering what I was doing with my life — what I had accomplished seemed to vanish and I was left with the feeling of “not enough”.

For me, the risk was what do I do with this feeling? Do I let it wear me down and discourage me, or do I use it as inspiration to raise the bar and take action to allow myself to change the way I feel in that moment? The answer, of course, is yes, take action and move forward. Often it’s easier said than done and can really get me in a funk. From my fitness routine to a good old-fashioned chat with a close friend, I have built strategies in my life to help lift me above those moments of comparison that can be as paralyzing as they are inspiring.

We say that comparison is the thief of joy because it usually brings its best friend along — jealousy. When we compare ourselves to that influencer on social media, our upwardly-mobile colleague, or our sibling who got into a top-rated program, we obscure our own vision by focusing on just one aspect — the win. We forget that every life is a rich experience full of wins and losses, joy and pain, peaks and valleys, flaws and beauty.

When we compare and become jealous, we deceive ourselves of reality. We see the promotion — not the endless stream of late nights, missed kid’s soccer games, forgotten anniversaries or canceled dates. We see the idealized body — not the uneaten birthday cake, the sweat sessions at the gym, the injuries sustained and worked through.

Beyond just selectively viewing the successes of others, comparison and jealousy also sets upon us unrealistic expectations. It is enormously easy to examine one aspect of a life and be jealous, but it’s entirely impossible to examine the complete experience of a life and be jealous. An entire life is bitter and sweet, good and bad. The perfect teeth you envy on your friend might come with an alcoholic parent. The enviable ski lodge in Fernie that your mentor owns might come with life-long depression.

When we are envious and jealous — whether materially or emotionally — it’s because we want something. And when humans are in the throes of want, we often withhold. If you want to buy a new luxury vehicle, you might withhold going out on dates with your spouse to save up. If you want to get a new job, you might withhold spending time with your friends or kids to put all of your focus on securing the role. When we withhold financially, emotionally, or relationally, we not only rob ourselves of joyful experiences but from those we love as well.

Social psychologists have shown that we use comparison of those most like us to reinforce our judgments and we use comparison of those least like us to validate our beliefs. Look at social media, as a broad example. How many human beings spend time arguing with internet strangers? When we “Other” people who are dissimilar to us, we believe it grants us validation in our beliefs. “This person, whose life experience is vastly different from mine, is wrong.” It makes us feel even more firm in our standing. Yet someone with beliefs and a life similar to ours will serve to increase our confidence that we are “right”.

I’d invite you to spend some time reflecting on recent moments of jealousy or comparison in your life.

  • Who or what did you compare yourself against?
  • Did it make you feel better, or worse, about yourself?
  • What actions did you take right after you compared or felt jealous?
  • How might reframing comparison benefit you in the future?

Reframing Negative To Positive

Now that we have a greater understanding of why we compare from an evolutionary perspective, and that you are not alone in doing this, how can we flip the negative into a positive? Comparison can often lead to negative outcomes, but it can also be an extremely motivating factor for self-improvement.

The most important tool at our disposal for self-improvement is, in fact, those we surround ourselves with. There’s the oft-quoted phrase,

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with or the five social media channels you engage with.”

Whomever you spend time with will ultimately influence you — whether it’s a person in your day-to-day or simply an account on social media. This will dictate what activities you engage in, what topics of conversation arise, what attitudes and behaviors you demonstrate. And, according to research conducted by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, “[the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.”

That’s monumental.

This can certainly work to your disadvantage. If the people you hang out with are comfortable coasting where they are, the dream in your mind may be bigger than the environment you are in. On the other hand, if the people you spend time with hold an incredibly high standard, this can motivate you to press forward to success.

Thinking back to starting my podcast, Collisions YYC, my friend Kevin Crowe was an integral factor in pushing me to achieve this. I shared the story in my Imposter Syndrome article, but in case you missed it, Kevin helped me to understand that fear was no excuse for not trying something. As someone who runs ultra-marathons for fun, Kevin reminded me that he is also scared when he takes on a physical challenge. Will he be able to overcome the physical and emotional fatigue to push through? (Hint: he can and he does.)

Take stock of those around you in every area of your life. Does your spouse push you to apply for that promotion you’re nervous about? Do your friends encourage you to take up that adventurous hobby you’ve been fearfully putting off? Or do they help you to find excuses as to why you never do?

What success looks like is up to you. What it means to win the “game of life” depends on you. By extension, what the best people to surround yourself with will be like, depends on you as well. I can’t tell you a secret recipe to finding the best five people to contribute to your success. It’s up to you to consider what you see as winning and find the people that can support you to accomplish more.

How To Beat Negative Comparison

So, how can you retrain your prehistoric brain to stop negative comparison? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

  • Practice gratitude.

It might sound cheesy, but it really does work. Our brains are an amplification tool of what is already happening inside of them. The brain only outputs what we put into it. If you fill your mind with toxic thoughts and negative comparisons, you amplify that negativity.

By practicing gratitude, and feeding your brain positive messages, it will output more of them. It’s impossible to be jealous when you are busy being grateful. Gratitude is a compass that reorients you towards what is good — what you already have.

  • Look at the whole picture.

It’s important to remind yourself that — when you weigh the entirety of a life experience — it quickly becomes easier to be satisfied and content with your own. When you find yourself comparing and jealous, wishing for what others have, it’s helpful to remember that to take all of their good you would also need to take all of their bad.

  • Don’t diminish yourself.

When we’re jealous, we have actual physiological responses. Jealousy is an angry, agitated state of mind in which we feel threatened, feel inferior (through comparison), and fear we may lose something or someone we value. When we feel this way, our body responds by activating regions of the brain that process physical pain, house emotions like shame, fear, and embarrassment, and our reward centre.

Jealousy can also activate a physical reaction similar to that of a typical stress response, where we have an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can all lead to sleep problems, poor appetite, and even depression.

By diminishing yourself and accomplishments by unhealthy comparison, you can cause havoc in your body and mind. You can try things like affirmations, mantras, therapy, interrupting negative thought patterns with tools such as the iOS App, Thought Diary, or simply reconnecting with your family and friends.

Remember that you are a unique individual with a journey that belongs to you. Life can be entirely what we want it to be if we surround ourselves with people who can uplift us, motivate us, and drive us to win the game of life on our own terms.

It’s important to remember that comparison is two sides of the same coin. When you sit in a negative comparison and become jealous, you are simply allowing your prehistoric brain to take control. But when you allow comparison to become a motivator, a tool you can use to push yourself further, you are able to better control your life and its outcomes.

What makes for a successful podcast?

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller

COVID-19 disrupted the concept of “being in the office” and proved that many companies and individuals had the ability to produce valuable outputs in a different setting. As the pandemic slowly begins to retreat, many organizations have shifted focus to discussing work from home versus work from the office. The conversation that needs to be had is about what creates value not where you are physically located.

“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go to.”

This does not mean that coming together in a fixed location can not create value; on the contrary, when done properly it can be an accelerant for new ideas and ways of thinking. The “heavy lifting” required on the part of not only the leadership team but of the entire organization is putting in the energy to personalize how this split of location-based value creation is used.

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