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Stop Demonizing the Idea of Comparing Yourself to Others

Social comparisons are inevitable. Here's how to benefit from them.

Key points

  • Most people are hardwired to compare themselves to others to some extent.
  • Social comparisons can fuel rather than hurt self-esteem when one defines success through their personal growth.
  • Healthy ways to compare oneself to others include focusing on similarities with more successful people, rather than differences.
Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash
Source: Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” His sentiment remains well ingrained in our modern society. If you search the internet for information about social comparisons, you’re likely to come across a myriad of inspirational quotes and articles which will encourage you to stop comparing yourself to others.

Yet, there are two problems with this advice. First, social comparisons have been described by researchers as an “almost inevitable element of social interactions.” Most people are hardwired to compare themselves to others to some extent, and, unfortunately, we cannot flip a switch to stop doing so.

Second, research tells us that not all comparisons are harmful. Whereas judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree is never fair, some comparisons can fuel rather than hurt self-esteem. For example, when seniors in school compared themselves to someone who was successful in finding a great job, they were inspired to be more proactive in their own job search.

Below are four recommendations for how you can similarly benefit from looking to others, rather than feeling worse:

Focus on Similarities

Research into social comparisons shows that if you compare yourself to someone who is excelling, you will likely feel worse if you contrast yourself against that person. However, if you instead frame that great performer as a role model rather than a competitor, and focus on the similarities between yourself and the person, their success can instead be motivating.

For example, imagine that Lenni is a runner training for a marathon with her running partner, Harriet. If Lenni runs her first marathon and Harriet has a much better race, focusing on differences might lead her to think, “Ugh, I’m not as good of a runner as Harriet,” thus hurting Lenni’s self-esteem. However, if she instead focuses on similarities and tries to frame Harriet as a role model, she might say to herself, “Wow, Harriet and I train together, and she did so well in this race! Clearly, our training is paying off. I’m going to try to learn more about how she was so successful this week.”

When you catch yourself engaging in social comparisons and start to feel that ping of self-doubt, try to switch your focus to the similarities between yourself and the other person. This can help turn things around and yield benefits in the long run.

Set Your Own Goals

While looking to others is natural, you do not have to use these comparisons to set your goals and standards of success. Employees can look at success in three different ways, defining their success through their:

  1. Personal growth
  2. Ability to avoid failure
  3. Ability to perform better than others

Researchers have demonstrated that others’ accomplishments will get you down only if you define your goals in the third way, through your ability to outperform others. However, if you don’t define your success relative to others, instead focusing on method 1 or 2, the opposite happens: Other people’s success stimulates your belief in your ability to reach your goals. In other words, if you set your own goals, others’ success can excite and inspire your own potential.

To get started on setting your own standards of success, it’s helpful to get in the habit of establishing your own weekly, monthly, and annual performance and learning goals. Performance goals are those that set your desired outcomes and motivate you to head in that direction. Learning goals help you focus on the process, rather than just the outcome, and encourage you to make internal growth part of your journey.

Establish Collaborative Norms

In research with my colleague Scott Dust, we found that the norms of a team determine whether comparisons are beneficial or detrimental to team members.

When people on a team are focused on their individual achievements and strive to be self-reliant, they feel worse when comparing themselves to a teammate with stellar accomplishments, contrasting their own lesser achievements. On the other hand, if the team is focused on aligning their goals and strives for communal action, one teammate’s accomplishment feels like a team accomplishment, meaning that the whole team enjoys success.

To establish collaborative team norms, it is important that people feel comfortable sharing their ideas, trust one another, and that leaders emphasize collaboration over competition.

Don’t Look to Just One Person

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once explained that you want to be looking at 10 people as role models, not just one: “You cannot hook onto making yourself somebody else. You want to make yourself an amalgamation of the best ideas you can put together with your personality and your style.”

Similarly, research has demonstrated that when you identify your own career role models, you’re often combining positive attributes from a selection of other people who have positively impacted your career rather than a sole individual.

Building from this idea, it can help to look to the attributes of many different people when striving to identify your own individual goals. Perhaps you appreciate the writing of one author, the persistence of an athlete, the speaking skills of a colleague, and the leadership of a former manager. Focusing on using each of these qualities to build your internal composite role model will allow you to learn from others while maintaining your authenticity.

In summary, comparisons can either be the thief of joy or the motivation to succeed. These strategies can help you benefit, rather than struggle, in looking at the successes of others.

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