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Episode 10: Why Do We Compare Ourselves to Others?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

This is an edited version of a podcast episode. If you prefer to listen, click Make Me Whole Podcast to find this and all my other episodes.

Shakespeare says, "What bitter thing it is to look at happiness through another man's eyes.” Why is it that we compare ourselves when it can cause so much grief? Actually, it's not usually a conscious choice, and honestly, we're always going to do it. However, we do have the option to check in on why we’re reacting the way we are and to what degree we're going to let it affect our decisions. There is this contradictory part of our human nature that strives to fit in and stand out at the same time. We are oftentimes motivated by the desire to be better than everyone else. Using others as a measuring stick is a normal part of life, and you can get some good feedback as well as ideas for paths you want to pursue. Just the same, it can cause serious issues with our emotions and how we deal with them. According to Brené Brown (I told you we were going to go back to her!), the real truth is that any one and every one is better than us at something, and this is why we have conflict with it. Comparison often threatens our self-worth, and when we come up short in an area we can't control, it particularly bothers us. But, being aware of it and being intentional about how it influences our lives makes all the difference.

There are some keywords that come up when we are discussing comparisons, including envy, jealousy, resentment, admiration, and reverence. I want to start with envy and jealousy, because I think we don't always realize the importance of being specific with the language that we use to describe what we're feeling. Generally speaking, we use the word jealous as the default. For example, when a coworker comes in with pictures from their latest vacation overseas, and you say to them, “Oh my gosh, I'm so jealous that you were able to go!”. We use “jealous” as opposed to “envious’, but jealousy typically involves three or more people, and it is more about losing someone’s time or attention. Envy involves two people, and it occurs when one person lacks something enjoyed by someone else. There is also a distinction between plain envy and malicious envy. The former involves thoughts like, “Well, I would like that for myself, but I don't want to take anything away from you.” On the other hand, envy becomes malicious when it strays towards "You didn't deserve that, and I want to make sure that you know it!" So jealousy is when we fear losing a relationship or status in a relationship, and envy happens when we want something that another person has.

Let's talk about resentment. Resentment is the emotion we feel when our boundaries are either not communicated or respected. We set up these expectations, and people let us down. The issue is usually something we can't control like what other people’s thoughts, feelings, or reactions. Honestly, I used to think that resentment was a cousin of anger, but it really comes from the Envy Family. Imagine again that you are the person that didn't go on the trip. You may not be mad at your coworker because they did. You may be resentful because you couldn’t because you took on a challenging, time-intensive project, whether that was because your boss is asking too much or because you aren’t comfortable saying no. This feeling can also come as a result of not having a necessary, but difficult, conversation and communicating your needs. If you haven't done that and a situation gets out of your control, you're going to feel resentment as a result of not communicating your desires. According to Dr. Brown, we need to choose short-term discomfort over long-term resentment.

Coming at this from the other side, what do you do when you are dealing with someone who is communicating jealousy or envy towards you? Oftentimes we have the urge to immediately change ourselves based on other peoples' needs. We make ourselves small so that the other person doesn’t have to do the work and deal with their feelings of jealousy, and honestly it's really challenging to be on the receiving end of that. Again, having those hard conversations and choosing the discomfort over resentment is probably the healthier thing for both parties.

Let's talk a little bit about admiration and reverence. So, we feel admiration when someone's abilities or accomplishments inspire us. It can come from works of art, museums, relics, and ruins. Admiration isn’t the feeling of wanting to be that person or thing, but rather it makes us feel powerful and motivates us to do better. Reverence, adoration, or worship: it's deeper than admiration, and it's usually connected to something greater than ourselves. For example, we are reverent in churches or other places of worship. However, when we are raised to be unquestioning of those authority figures, as I was growing up in the Catholic Church, there are often problems when we get older and we start challenging assumptions. Another major source of expectations of reverence, in my life at least, come from older family members. Sometimes our relatives don't take into account who we are or what our situation is, so their advice can be faulty. Usually they make it more complicated. In some cases, the people that we are supposed to revere don't even have our best interests in mind. What has been hard for me is when someone has tried to use the reverence I should have for them as a tool of control or power. And just like Brené Brown, I truly believe that anything that demands reverence must accept being challenged or questioned. Otherwise, there is only a surface-level, performative deference without love or respect. You’re supposed to obey your elders, you're supposed to obey your parish priest, you're supposed to obey the clergy. But when we are living in our truth, we put our own needs over these rules . If it's not in my spirit, I'm not going to do it.

We draw upon all these ingrained concepts when we compare ourselves to others. You know, when we start trying to keep up with the Jones'? That’s going to keep us continually unhappy because we're chasing an illusion. Drawing comparisons can be helpful in certain situations. It might help us reach a deeper understanding of what we want for our lives or how we might be able to achieve it, but if we base our self-worth on it, it's going to have a negative impact. You’re going to feel like you constantly have to prove yourself not only to those around you, but also yourself. You may lose trust in your intuition and start second guessing your decisions. Immediately cutting all judgment (from both within and without) would be ideal, but we know that’s not possible. Take some time to consider some small changes you can make to move in the right direction. If you’re on social media and seeing all the perfectly curated pictures isn’t serving you, make some adjustments to your Following list. Accept that comparing and being compared is part of life, and see how you can make it a part of your own self-growth.

Now, when I feel that I’m comparing myself to other people I have to stop and think, “Is this really good for me? Is this helping me in any way? Is this going to help me on my future path?” There is no one solution. We have to recognize our strength, decide to learn how to be genuinely happy for ourselves and others, and understand that we are never going to match up exactly with our friends and colleagues. There are differences in knowledge, background, intelligence, skill, education, experience. The only way to avoid that would be to have a world full of clones, and if we did that, we’d only be absolutely miserable. We’re supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be special and unique. And honestly, we need to seek out those who are unlike us, learn from them, and be inspired.

When we compare ourselves to others, those we think are doing much better than us, it really invalidates our own achievements and capabilities. The things we’ve built. When we feel like we don’t measure up, that sense of fragility can keep us from moving forward towards our goals. I’ll leave you with this once again, the only person you should be consistently comparing yourself to is your past self. Our work needs to be focused on growing from the inside, being kinder, celebrating others, working hard, and becoming more resilient. Choose to be open to the possibilities of all you can do in the future instead of getting bogged down in the perceived lack of the present. Your uniqueness is what makes you wonderful in this world. Don’t let your fear deprive the world of your perspectives and gifts1


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