Comparing Ourselves to Others

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By Dina Zalami, M.Ed, US trained Counseling Psychologist, licensed in Dubai, UAE

Do you find yourself thinking that others around you have it easier than you, leading you to feel down? Do you find yourself believing that you are unlucky in life, especially after hearing about your friends’, colleagues’, or family members’ professional and personal achievements? Do you often hear others trying to motivate you to do better by comparing you to others? If so, you are not the only one to face some of the pitfalls that stem from comparing yourself or being compared to others.

The notion that comparing ourselves to others may make us feel down, unlucky, or ‘unsatisfied’ with ourselves and our lives is not new to most of us. But somehow, we seem to find it hard to prevent ourselves from engaging in this behaviour. In fact, we all do it; we all compare. We compare each other’s professional achievements, personal achievements, physical appearances and much more. We actually learn to do so at quite a young age. Think of how common it is for parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, and others to try to motivate us to do better by pointing out what others seem to be doing well.

Moreover, in today’s new technology age, social media forums such as Facebook and Instagram have expanded the space for such tendencies which have flourished. We regularly check in with what others are up to professionally, socially, and personally and compare their apparent ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ with our own.

The question I have asked myself as a psychotherapist is, how can we explain our tendency as humans to regularly compare ourselves to others? After reflecting on this subject, I believe that comparing ourselves to others serves some of our basic needs as human beings, although it can also take a significant toll on our emotional and mental health.

You may be wondering what kinds of needs comparing ourselves to others may serve. To start off with, as social beings, we all have a need to belong to a group or community. Part of the process of comparing ourselves to others enhances our feeling of belonging to our social group, and reassures us that we fit within the accepted range of behaviours and social norms of the group we want to be part of. On the flip side of the same coin, comparing ourselves to others reaffirms our uniqueness and helps us differentiate ourselves from others as our personal and social identities make more sense in opposition to the ‘other’. Comparison to other members of the group/community may also inspire and motivate us in seeking new challenges and improving ourselves, thus feeding our human need for self -actualisation (fulfilling our own unique and individual potential).

Nevertheless, when we don’t manage our human tendency to compare ourselves to others, we may experience a negative toll on our emotional and psychological well-being. For example, the more energy we spend on comparing, the more likely we are to think of all the things we wish we had that others seem to have. We then tend to filter out any qualities or positive aspects within ourselves or our lives and narrow-in to what we think we lack. As a result, we may feel sadness, anger, anxiety, jealousy, resentfulness, hopelessness, sadness, loneliness, or low self-esteem. Moreover, focusing on what we don’t have that others seem to have may also make us more pessimistic in the way we perceive life circumstances, thus making it more difficult for us to manage life challenges.

In addition, the assumptions we make as we compare our lives to others’ may be unrealistic which can negatively influence our mental health. Too often, we forget that what we ‘see’ in others is likely to not reflect their entire truth and as a result, we start to make irrational assumptions about others and nurture idealistic expectations of ourselves and of life. Think of social media sites for example. People (myself included) tend to share pictures or information that highlight their qualities or positive aspects in their lives; they are not likely to share their failures, fears, disappointments, etc…. However, we tend to ignore this fact and assume that what we see is the whole reality as we browse our friends’ profiles on Facebook or Instagram. This may lead us to think that it is possible for others to be ‘that happy’ or ‘perfect’ whereas in reality, no one has it all. Assuming that others have it all when we don’t, not only makes us feel bad about ourselves and our lives, but it also may lead us to create a distorted view of reality. And of course, the more unrealistic our thoughts and expectations are, the more we are likely to feel disappointed, helpless, and pessimistic about our imperfect selves, lives, and circumstances.

Furthermore, aside from serving certain basic needs we have as human beings, comparing ourselves to others may reflect an escape from or an avoidance of truly being with ourselves. Many of us fear looking within ourselves because we may be self-critical, self-judgmental, and afraid of experiencing hurt. However, avoiding ourselves is a major obstacle to experiencing emotional and psychological well being as well as living life fully.

So how can we better manage our natural tendency of comparing ourselves to others? For starters, it is important to remember that we are all imperfect and that this is ok. Remembering this allows us to look within ourselves with self-compassion, and doing so can help us focus less on what others are doing and more on what we want to do.

In addition, it is beneficial to be aware of the assumptions we make on a day to day basis of others and of life, while reframing any assumptions we think may be unrealistic.

It is also important to remember that each one of us has our own individual life journey to experience and it is ok when we experience it differently from how others experience it. Instead of focusing on how ‘behind’ or ‘ahead’ we may be in our lives compared to others, it is healthier to focus on how authentically we are living our own lives. Are we living our life in a way that reflects our values, our potential, and our limitations? Living our life based on our own authentic self is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, I believe.