It’s barely a convoluted argument that comparisons to others are one of the most detrimental influencers to our confidence. They are also amongst the top things, which every self-help book or article on self-esteem will prescribe to abstain from, because they are believed to impose a rather heavy social taxation on our self-image.
And nothing can quite harm our confidence more than a “why-others-have-more” mentality.
We often claim to be prudent and mature individuals—at least enough to know that the grass is not always greener on the other side, and yet—we all, to varying degrees, continue to evaluate our worth and achievements parallel to others. It’s unhealthy, we all know that, but we all, to varying degrees tend to engage in this also meaningless exercise.
And it usually leaves us feeling downhearted, perpetually unsatisfied with our own lives and in a never-ending race to flaunt to the world that we can be “just as”—as affluent, pretty, cool, successful, well-dressed and spoken, or educated.
Even more unsettling, however, is that if we decide to ever withdraw from the “I-need-to-be-on-top” race, we may be taken for a weak loner and even a misanthrope, a self-proclaimed rebel, not worthy of attention and respect.
Simply put—if we are too content with our current lives, we are often deemed the underdogs—the ones who largely lack competitive spirit, hunger for success and a motivation to rule the world, or whatever we can claim of it.
So, we have to “stay in the game,” it seems, to be esteemed by others, but also—to be able to consistently validate our status and even our self-image against the world.
Quite surprisingly, however, comparisons are not always the counter-productive confidence-and self-views killers.
The Social Comparison Theory[i] –developed by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954—initially attested that parallels are needed, so we can draw truthful self-evaluations. But more so, these assessments are based on our relative value, as perceived, compared to others.
That is, it’s not that important that we have acquired a lot of money, material things, achieved successes, or may be, indeed, the “fairest in the land.”
What ultimately matters is that we simply have more (money, possessions, etc.), or are more (beautiful, better dressed, charming, ambitious, etc.) than the people we compare ourselves against.
It makes us feel exceptional.
The theory also introduced two types of comparisons—downward (when we compare ourselves against people who are worse off than us) and upward (measuring up against others who are better off). Perhaps it’s not hard to guess that downward comparisons tend to make us feel better about ourselves, while the upward ones will generally create the opposite effect.
Of course, it’s not a random process either—we won’t assess ourselves against just anybody or on any attribute. We look for others that are close to the occupation, character traits or qualifications which we consider relevant and important to our self-image.[ii]
And to make things a bit more tangled, research has discovered that, sometimes, upward comparisons are good for us—as they may serve as a motivational and self-improvement trampoline—simply, they can help us learn and develop our characters.
But, as the fine print further reads, this is mostly true for those who don’t feel their self-esteem threatened by measuring up with the upscale Joneses—those high achieving, goal-oriented and intently-focused individuals. Yet, if our self-esteem is on the lower side of the spectrum, or if we have experienced some misfortune or threat in the past, [iii] the strive to measure up will feel as a confidence suicide.
There are also the dangers of the “spillover effect” as well—that is, just because we don’t perceive ourselves to be better on a certain dimension—physical, monetary, even intellectual—we tend question our abilities to accomplish other, unrelated to that dimension goals. For instance, if we were passed for a promotion at work, we may start doubting our overall chances to ever be in a successful relationship, or to become a good parent.
One small unfavorable thing or event may self-escalate and trigger an avalanche of adverse thoughts, behaviors and perceived self-unworthiness.
Simply put, comparisons may be helpful—yes, even perhaps to our self-image—but should be taken in small meticulously-measured doses and with great caution.
Admittedly, one can also argue that such parallel-bound appraisals may sometimes be the only way to define ourselves. For instance, how would we know how smart or intelligent we are, or how good we are at math, at managing our finances ,or dealing with people? One way to answer this is by measuring up against past precedents or to others in similar situations and settings.
But first and foremost, whenever possible, we must always try to value our achievements against our past selves. And if we absolutely have to look to others, we need to be carefully selective—about who we weigh ourselves against and the dimensions we elect to measure up on.
Because if we take pears for just a different kind of apples, the original motivation behind such assessments—to draw an accurate picture of ourselves—may come up as a Picasso-like painting—reflecting a bit of an alternative or skewed reality.
Therefore, we should always be frugal in our comparisons, and beware of the fallacy of the greener grass.
[i] The theory was developed by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954. The original idea that he proposed that people engage in comparisons because we all have a desire to create truthful self-evaluations. Comparisons can help us define our self-concept and re-confirm our own beliefs.
[ii] Wood, J. V. (1989). “Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes.” Psychological Bulletin 106 (2): 231–248. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.231. This premise is also a basic idea in the so-called “Similarity Theory” which states that we are attracted to similar others—with alike beliefs, attitudes, and even physical characteristics.
[iii] Wills, T.A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245-271. Aspinwall, L. G.; Taylor, S. E. (1993). “Effects of social comparison direction, threat, and self-esteem on affect, self-evaluation, and expected success.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (5): 708–722. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1688.