Have you ever just sat by yourself and asked why it is that we compare so much? There is not a day that goes by that I do not find myself comparing almost everything that I engage in to other people around me. Why does comparison almost always elicit negative feelings? Is comparison even necessary?
Comparison has fascinated me for a long time. I have spent the last few months trying to dive into the topic and what I have found has been quite insightful. I think by understanding this psychological phenomenon we can be able to feel better about ourselves and manage our emotions from the negativity that stems from comparison.
To have a better understanding of comparison we need to take a journey back in time. All the way back to 1954. A Cognitive Psychologist by the name Leon Festinger had been studying Group Dynamics for a few years. In 1954, he came up with the Social Comparison Theory which gives us some insight into why we compare.
The Social Comparison Theory proposed that people had an innate drive to evaluate themselves in relation to others. Festinger believed that we engaged in this process of social comparison so that we could establish benchmarks which we would use to accurately evaluate ourselves.
So, Why Do We Compare…
The Social Comparison Theory gives us an idea of where comparison comes from. However, the question that I wanted answered was “Why do we compare?”
Festinger identified that human beings could not compare themselves intrinsically or independently. They could only compare themselves in relation to someone else. This simply means that we are always comparing ourselves to others. Comparison never stops.
We do this for two reasons. First, we compare ourselves to reduce uncertainty. We want to be sure that what we are doing, will yield the results that we want. In order be sure about what actions to take, we compare ourselves to someone who is on the same path as we are. We look for someone similar and comparable.
Secondly, we compare ourselves to find our identity. As I mentioned before people are unable to define themselves independently. We therefore look to others to better understand ourselves.
In order to find my identity as a photographer, I compare myself to Chris Knight who is a far more accomplished and successful photographer than I am. In comparing myself to him, I am able to look at his process, mindset and work ethic and from that define my own photography.
The reasons as to why we compare make sense. These reasons are reasonable to say the least, but one thing remains a mystery. Why do I feel bad when I compare?
I Stopped Posting on Instagram, It Made me Feel Bad…
Festinger identified a few more interesting things about comparison. The first thing that I found interesting about his findings was that we compare ourselves to people we are similar to. Rarely do we compare ourselves to individuals whose abilities, attitudes and traits are so far above our own.
For example, I started running recently. I find it easier to measure my progress in this new hobby to a friend or colleague who also recently started running. I would find it a bit daunting to compare my progress to that of Usain Bolt. He is out of my league.
Festinger’s second finding of interest is that when we stop comparing ourselves to someone who is similar to ourselves we experience negative emotions. Our method of dealing with these emotions is to tear the other party down, say mean things and bitch about them. These negative emotions end up making us not feel good about ourselves either.
As a creator I have bitched about so many people. I have bitched about particular creators to other creators whom we find ourselves in similar situations with. What makes matters worse is that I have attended creator meet ups where creator’s do the same thing, bitch about creators who seem to be at a similar level but are doing much better than the rest of us.
The process of getting to understand comparison better has really brought to light a lot of unhealthy comparison that goes on not only in my mind but in other creator’s minds as well. It happens so much that it has become a habit within the community of creator’s. We are deep in the sea of unhealthy comparison and we do not even realise it.
At the beginning of 2021. I left Instagram. I left the platform because just like many others, I felt that the platform made me feel bad about myself and my work. In recent weeks while researching on comparison I came to the realisation that Instagram did not do anything. I have been comparing myself to other creators on the platform unhealthily.
Self-Evaluation Vs Self-Enhancement
When I think back to my early days when I started photography, I realise that I spent so much time looking through other creator’s works.I was constantly looking at what I was better at than they were. I used their short comings as motivation to keep working at being better and more recognisable than them.
Most times, I realised that I fell short of being as good as these photographers. The few times that I was better at something that they fell short of, I obsessed over that one thing. In most circumstances those things I was better at did not matter that much.
Long story short, there has been a lot of comparison that I have done in my life that has left me feeling worse about myself.
Comparison Exists for Our Own Growth (Self-Evaluation)
As I have spent the last few weeks doing a deep dive into the world of comparison, I was also trying to figure out where the motivation to be better than other creators came from.
This form of comparison is unhealthy. I say it is “unhealthy” because I see no need to feel bad about another creator being successful. I also see no need to feel bad about the current state of my work because it is far much better than it used to be.
Festinger indicated that we compare ourselves to establish benchmarks that we use to make an accurate evaluation of ourselves in comparison to others. The key word here being evaluation. The motivation behind comparison here being self-evaluation.
This means that the role of comparison is to help us see the gaps in our abilities. These gaps in essence should help us identify where we fall short. It is then up to us to put in our own effort and work on those particular areas and develop them in the process.
Comparison, in my opinion, exists to help us better ourselves in areas that we want to develop. Sadly, we tend not to use comparison in this way.
Comparison Leads to Our Down Fall (Self -Enhancement)
If you have engaged enough with material on psychology, you will see a consistent pattern where our brains lie to us all the time. You would think that with all the amazing things that the human brain is capable of doing, lying to itself would be the last thing it would do.
Sadly, this is not the case. When it comes to comparison, self-evaluation in most cases is overlooked and replaced by self-enhancement, the need to feel good about ourselves. Self-enhancement seems to out weigh self-evaluation in most scenarios.
When we compare ourselves in most circumstances, we do not use comparison to identify where we fall short, instead we use comparison to feel better about our current abilities and in the process do little to nothing to improve or develop them.
Awareness is Key…
Comparison is a psychological phenomenon that exists to help us become better. It is a method for evaluation, a psychological assessment mechanism built to tell us that we are good at one thing and not the other. It is our responsibility therefore, to work on the areas we are not good at.
Comparison will not work in our favour if we are not aware of our emotions. Remember we compare ourselves to individuals who are similar to us. The moment that we realise that our abilities are too far apart to be comparable, we stop comparing and experience negative emotions.
In the second scenario, the benefits of comparison are out weighed by the disadvantages. This means that we are more likely to cultivate unhealthy comparison and constantly live with negative emotions. We will live feeling that we fall short in certain ways but compensate by making ourselves feel better. When we allow negative emotions to take precedence we will lack the ability to act on the things that we need to to develop.
I hope that after reading this article you will cultivate the awareness necessary to differentiate healthy comparison from unhealthy comparison. I hope you now understand where comparison comes from, why we compare and the motivations for comparison.
As I conclude, remember that that comparison exists to help us become better at identifying where we fall short. The responsibility to become better in the areas that we fall short, are on no one else but yourself (not instagram). If you fall into the vicious cycle of unhealthy comparison, there is no one to blame but yourself.
See you in another post.