Can We Stop Comparing Ourselves to Others?

Social comparison is a hard instinct to resist but you can learn to control it.

Posted Dec 10, 2014

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We cause ourselves pain when we compare ourselves to others. So why do we keep doing it? Because all animals compare themselves to others, and we've inherited the brain that creates this impulse.

Animals are always checking each other out. Their survival depends on it, and their brain chemicals respond with life-or-death feelings. We have the same brain chemicals, and they give you the feeling that your life is threatened when you see someone with bigger antlers. When your own antlers have the edge, you get a nice safe feeling. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you see a way to promote your survival, and warns you with a bad feeling when you see any threat to your genes' survival.

You have probably heard that animals cooperate, and that life is warm and fuzzy in the state of nature. You should know the rest of the story, because your serotonin depends on it. The mammal brain releases serotonin when it sees that it’s dominant. The good feeling motivates a mammal to do things that stimulate it. Serotonin does not spur aggression, but a nice calm sense that your needs will be met. I am not saying you should be a jerk (and being a jerk doesn't free your inner mammal from this cage, anyway). I am saying you must manage your one-uppy feelings instead of blaming the world for them.

You may pride yourself on your sense of fairness, but your brain keeps comparing and reacting anyway. When someone else has the edge, your brain releases cortisol, the chemical that tells an animal that its survival is threatened. Your brain looks for ways to stimulate that nice serotonin feeling, which leads to social comparisons that make you feel bad. 

What’s a big-brained mammal to do? 

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It stops with me.

You can manage your brain’s impulse to compare. To do this, you must recognize the comparing you are doing, instead of blaming it all on others. Then you are free to make a new choice.

It feels scary at first. When you feel like the world is judging you, you want to judge it right back to feel safe. Your brain chemicals create a huge sense of urgency, and your verbal cortex rationalizes it with fancy theories.

You may sneer at earlier generations who competed to have the biggest hat or the biggest bustle. But we have created new scorecards that work the same way. Today, many people condemn others for being insensitive in order to put themselves in the one-up position. You get a nice serotonin feeling when you applaud your superior sensitivity. But you are still busy comparing and reacting. You inevitably notice someone who rates higher on your personal scorecard, and your cortisol turns on. It will feel like your survival is threatened, so your brain will seek the one-up position again to feel safe.

You can do this all day without noticing it. No matter how well you’re doing, you will always find someone doing better. Everyone has that cousin or neighbor who makes them feel like they’re missing out on something. But when you know how your brain works, you know that they didn’t “make” you feel that way. You created the feeling, and you have the power to stop it.

A hilarious description of this thought spiral is James Altucher’s blog post "I’m Completely Humiliated by Yoga": You can go to a yoga class with good intentions and end up spending it making social comparisons that leave you frustrated. Similarly, you can go to a holiday party with good intentions and end up spending it making social comparisons that leave you frustrated. But you can also remind yourself that you are a mammal and your brain is making the comparisons. You can focus your mind to avoid that roller coaster.

For example, when I go to a yoga class, I choose a spot at the front where I won’t be able to see what the beautiful people behind me are doing. When I can’t see the others, I have to focus harder on the teacher’s instruction, and this is a welcome distraction from muscle strain. (See my post, "Every Day Is Independence Day, and Interdependence Day.")

It’s easy to think the world is judging you, and hard to see how you are creating that feeling. But when you understand your inner mammal, you can free it from the cage of social comparison. Sometimes you want help, but remember: Everyone you know is a mammal. Your friends and relatives tend to feed the idea that you are being judged. Trying to change them leaves you more distracted. Instead, structure your focus in creative ways.

(For an entertaining overview of your inner mammal’s dilemma, check out my slide shows, "It’s Not Easy Being Mammal" and "The Nature of Hierarchy and the Curse of Social Comparison." A complete program for ending the curse of social comparison is in my book, I, Mammal: How to Make Peace with the Animal Urge for Social Power.)

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Your cortex finds the information your mammal brain tells it to look for, because your brain evolved for survival. If you are looking for people who are doing better than you, your cortex will find it. Your brain will torture you with social comparison because it worked for your animal ancestors. The curse of social comparison is hard to escape, especially when you think others are doing it to you. When you know you are doing it to yourself, though, you have the power to stop it. You simply shift to another thought. In every moment, you have the power to focus on the pleasure of your moves instead of on the pain of presumed shortcomings. This feels scary at first because your inner mammal wants to guard against bigger critters. But you know how to train your inner mammal. You’ve trained it not to eat every pizza you see, or mate with every attractive stranger you pass. You can also train it to focus on your next step instead of on how the bigger apes view your last step.

If it’s so easy, though, why is it so hard? Because you have to do it again and again and again. Your inner mammal will start checking people out a minute after you’ve decided no to. If you don’t keep re-directing it, you will end up convinced that “they” are judging you.

Image credit:
1. Loretta Breuning
2. Loretta Breuning
3. Photo: yobro10 / 123RF