We’re often advised not to compare ourselves to others, because we are all unique individuals. It’s true: there’s no one else exactly like us on this planet. Even identical twins have environmentally induced differences.
While self-comparison may come naturally to us, it can easily transform into something damaging to our psyche, and eventually our self-image, and self-image is immensely important. Our article The 5 Aspects of Success can teach you more about self-image.
Yet there are occasions when comparisons are not only important but vital to our success.
If you’ve ever compared yourself to those around you, you’re not alone. According to Leon Festinger, a psychologist known for the Social Comparison Theory, there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations to better understand our place in society. One of the primary ways we do this is by comparing ourselves to others.
Psychologists claim there are two main types of comparisons: upward comparison, where people compare themselves to people they believe are better than they are, and downward comparison, where people compare themselves to those who are less proficient than they are. The important thing is to learn how these two comparisons can help us achieve success.
Comparing ourselves to those we perceive to be better off than we are may inspire us to improve upon our current situation. Upward comparison can make us strive to do better. “Upward comparison can be punishing and make you feel terrible,” writes psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson in her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. “But you can also look upward to learn.” If we are attempting to learn a skill, looking at someone who has already mastered it can inspire us to do better.
“Upward comparison only sometimes results in more negative self-evaluations,” writes Rebecca L. Collins in the Psychological Bulletin. “It can also be self-enhancing...upward comparison is not in conflict with the desire for positive self-regard and indeed serves it indirectly (through self-improvement) and sometimes directly (by enhancing the self).”
“Upward social comparisons can be self-enhancing and motivating,” says Iresearchnet.com. “For example, ex-smokers may seek contact with successful ex-smokers to learn about their strategies or to be inspired by their examples.”
Upward comparisons help us set not only goals, but also benchmarks to look for along our journey. We can learn from our mistakes, absorb valuable information, and cut a significant amount of time out of the learning curve involved with trial and error.
Downward comparison has to do with empathy for others. Comparing ourselves to those we perceive to be worse off than we are puts into perspective our current situation. “When individuals are highly close to a comparison other, they may include the other as part of their own identity,” writes Rebecca T. Pinkus and Penelope Lockwood in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “One may empathize with the other and experience the other’s successes and failures as one’s own.” In other words, if we empathize with someone, we feel sorry for their failures.
In the Penn State News, Andrea Elyse Messer writes “The University of Iowa found that people who compare ‘downward’ to others who are worse off, are less depressed than people who compare ‘upward’ to people who are better off. Downward comparisons often are associated with immediate positive feelings such as relief and gratitude.”
To be truly successful in what we do, we need to understand both sides of the scale. This is not about looking down while we’re climbing a mountain -- this is about continuous learning and understanding the journey involved.
As Heidi A. Wayment, PhD, and Jack J. Bauer, PhD, put it in Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego, “Perceived similarity with less fortunate others can heighten the sense of vulnerability. Individuals have reported that when experiencing this situation, they feel more interpersonal affection and greater affinity towards other people.”
Self-comparison is important, but there are dangers involved. Many people often go about it in all the wrong ways, leading to tarnished self-images and low esteem. “Social comparisons may seem to serve several positive functions, including self-enhancement. Frequent social comparisons, however, have a dark side,” writes Judith B. White in the Journal of Adult Development. “[People who make] frequent social comparisons [are sometimes] more likely to experience envy, guilt, regret, and defensiveness, and to lie, blame others, and to have unmet cravings.”
“Upward comparison can...be a double-edged sword,” writes Juliana Breines Ph.D. in Psychology Today. On one hand, it can provide inspiration and hope, motivate us to improve our own situation, and provide useful information about how to overcome an obstacle...On the other hand, upward comparison can fuel envy, low self-esteem, and schadenfreude.”
When it comes to upward comparisons, it’s important to keep these points in mind:
This second point is incredibly important. Often, we overthink and exaggerate the achievements of others. It’s quite easy to see images others post on social media and assume only the best. But what we don’t see are the problems; the stresses and strains in their relationships, health and other areas of life that are not displayed to the public. People tend to only present the positive elements of their lives. It’s important to keep this in mind when comparing yourself to others.
Downward comparisons have similar dangers. “On the surface,” writes Juliana Breines Ph.D., “downward comparisons may seem harmless, even healthy, but they have several drawbacks...to the extent that these comparisons form a basis for self-esteem, it's a fragile one because they depend on the continued misfortune of others. Downward comparison can also put a strain on our relationships. When we focus too narrowly on others’ negative attributes, we may miss the complete picture of their strengths and successes…” To avoid the pitfalls of downward comparisons, remember the following:
Not following point #3 can be especially dangerous, because using downward comparisons this way makes us rely on an external reference for our own sense of self-esteem. This can causes us to base our self-worth entirely on how others are doing in society. Following this method may cause a general lack of identity -- we may end up changing whenever others change, for better or worse. Self-esteem is not relative -- it is unique to each of us. Don’t make the mistake of looking down on others just to make ourselves feel better.
“Social comparison typically involves contrast and differentiation,” writes Juliana Breines Ph.D. in Psychology Today. “When we consider our common humanity, it can yield very different results, promoting connection and understanding rather than distance and othering.”
If we keep this in mind, self-comparison can become a vital tool in our journey to mastering our craft and living our dreams.