Like most Americans this Thanksgiving week, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gratitude and the many things I’m thankful for in my life.
One of the most profound gratitude experiences I’ve ever had was after I finished reading Victor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning for the first time about 15 years ago. Frankl’s accounts of life in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany — and the scraps of beauty, hope, and purpose some prisoners were able to find there against all odds — made me acutely attuned to the simple blessings in my life.
At the heart of that gratitude experience was something social psychologists refer to as “social comparison”.
It’s often just below the surface of our awareness, but we human beings are constantly comparing ourselves to other people — even to alternate versions of ourselves — to get a sense of who we are, how we’re doing, and what’s possible for us.
I was making those social comparisons before reading Frankl’s book, and I was still making them afterward.
What shifted for me was my point of comparison.
I stopped making “upward” social comparisons — contrasting my high-stress, low-pay grad student existence with the lives of well-off people with abundant leisure time.
Instead, I had started making a “downward” comparison with people who were worse off than I was. I was thinking about the experiences of Frankl and his comrades in the concentration camps. And as a result, simple things like sufficient food, a warm bed, and personal safety became blessings for which I felt profoundly grateful. The new comparison made me realize how good I really had things.
The social comparison thing is a little more involved, though, than just a question of comparing up or down. And it has impacts beyond the potential to create feelings of gratitude.
Let’s look first at the different ways your comparisons impact you. Then we’ll get down to the nuts and bolts — how to make comparisons that work in your favor.
How Your Comparisons Affect You
I’ll use a simple “have, do, be” framework here that I first encountered in a Franklin-Covey planner I used way back in the pre-digital age.
They suggested asking yourself, “What do I want to have? to do? to be?” But when we’re thinking about the social comparisons we make, the question tends to be not just “What do I want?” but also “How am I doing?”
HAVE: Gratitude vs. Deprivation
As illustrated with my concentration camp example, the comparisons we make can help us feel fortunate, blessed, and grateful, leading to a sense of abundance and satisfaction with the realities of our present lives. And there’s plenty of research showing that the act of cultivating gratitude boosts overall feelings of happiness and well-being.
On the other hand, negative “upward” comparisons can lead to feelings of resentment, envy, deprivation, scarcity, and other negative emotions and beliefs.
We’ve all been there at times. It feels crummy to swim in those negative feelings. But it’s not just that it feels bad…
It might seem that raising your awareness of a gap (between where you are and where you want to be) would help you address that gap, but the reality is actually that positive emotions are much better motivators than negative ones.
DO: Self-Efficacy vs. Helplessness
The comparisons we make also impact things like learning, motivation, and self-confidence.
Have you ever had this experience? You see a colleague accomplish something, and you think to yourself, “Hey, if they can do that, so could I!”
That’s a social comparison too.
You’re comparing yourself to your colleague and deciding that the two of you are similar enough that it’s a reasonable conclusion to think you’re likely to succeed if they could.
On the other hand, sometimes these kinds of comparisons can work in reverse: You see someone else performing at levels far beyond what you’ve so far been able to achieve, and it’s completely demoralizing. You decide you’re a hopeless case, and you stop even trying.
So social comparisons have the potential to do a number of things for you. They can…
- offer inspiring examples that motivate you to push yourself further.
- teach you how to proceed. You learn by watching and/or talking with others who are doing what you hope to do.
- build your confidence in your ability to accomplish your goals. That’s the “I can do this” attitude that psychologists refer to as “self-efficacy”.
In the “how-to” section below, I’ll provide some tips on how to reap these benefits. Because certain comparisons can also work against you and have the opposite effects.
BE: Self-Esteem vs. Self-Criticism
Many comparisons we make relate to fundamental questions of worth and acceptance.
We look around at our social environment to help us answer questions such as:
- “Am I ok?”
- “Am I likeable?”
- “Do I fit in?”
- “Am I normal?”
These comparisons tend to focus less on the circumstances of our lives (“HAVE”) or on the things we hope to accomplish (“DO”) and more on our personal traits and how others might be seeing us.
An example of my own may help illustrate here:
Early in my consulting career, when working alongside other colleagues, I became aware that on certain tasks I work much more slowly than others do.
I watched enviously as one coworker whipped out written leadership feedback reports at twice the rate I was producing them. My reports received raves for their depth and insight, but I was nonetheless beating myself up for being too slow in producing them. I tried hard to match my colleagues’ speed, but my improvements were only incremental. I felt inadequate and guilty that I was costing my organization extra money by taking longer to get the same amount of work done.
What was going on here? I was making upward comparisons related to “writing speed”, and I was coming up short. There were few benefits to making this comparison. I wasn’t able to get much faster, no matter what I tried, and I just ended up feeling bad about myself.
The fix for me was to change my point of comparison. I remembered there are many people in the world who would be unable at all to produce these kinds of reports, and I felt proud and grateful for the talents that allowed me to do this work in the company of such smart people.
And then I expanded my viewpoint and reminded myself that there are other ways in which I excel. Writing speed is not my greatest strength, but I have an exceptionally fertile, creative brain that allows me to see multiple connections and possibilities. I realized that this strength was, in fact, what slows me down as a writer. But it also added great value for my employer and my clients.
So I got over myself and that unhelpful social comparison I had been making.
These “BE” comparisons can be the most insidious. It can be hard to notice we’re even making them; we just know we’re feeling bad about ourselves.
But start paying attention, and you can catch yourself in the act of the social comparison. You might notice you’re comparing yourself to other people, to societal norms and expectations, to various “shoulds” you’ve internalized, even to ideal alternate version of yourself — for example, the svelt you from back in your high school days, or the successful doctor you were supposed to grow up to be.
Whatever or whomever you’re looking to as your point of reference, once you’ve caught yourself in the act, then you can be intentional about choosing your point of comparison.
RELATE: Connection vs. Isolation
I know I said all this fit neatly into that “have, do, be” framework, but as I’m writing this, I’m realizing there’s one more critical dimension that’s also at play here…
I haven’t looked into the research on this, but it seems to me that our approach to these comparisons can also have a significant impact on our relationships.
Your social comparisons can create bonds that strengthen your current relationships and help you build new ones. Or they can lead to tensions and walls that undermine both your existing relationships and your ability to form new ones.
When you’re comparing upward in a relationship, you might experience jealousy and resentment, or feelings of inadequacy and shame. When you’re comparing downward, you might experience guilt or feelings of superiority. In both cases, it’s hard to build trusting, open, warm relationships.
You need to get the mental comparisons right in order to build relationships that nurture you and others.
How To Make Comparisons That Help Instead of Hurt
With so much at stake — personal happiness, the motivation and confidence to accomplish new things, our self-esteem, the quality of our relationships — its important to do these comparisons well.
There are two things at play here:
- WHO you’re comparing yourself with (e.g., Oprah, your best friend, a homeless person you encountered today)
- WHAT the comparison is about (e.g., wealth, health, kindness, career success, leisure time, etc.)
The General Strategy
It doesn’t always work this way, but here’s a quick rule of thumb:
For the most part upward comparisons (comparing ourselves with those more fortunate, successful, etc.) tend to make us feel worse, and downward comparisons (comparing ourselves with people who have less, are not as accomplished, etc.) tend to make us feel better.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule — and in fact there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to gathering and using the “social information” we gain from comparing ourselves to others.
This is about managing your own mind and heart. Ultimately, you are the best judge of what works for you here.
Ask yourself these questions as you begin tuning in to your own social comparisons and the impact they’re having:
Does my focus here lead to…
- feelings of gratitude and abundance?
- motivation and insight into how to accomplish what I want with my life?
- feelings of confidence and self-worth?
- stronger, closer relationships?
That’s the bottom line.
If your thoughts are not accomplishing one or more of those things for you, then it’s time to choose a different point of reference. Either shift who you’re comparing yourself with or what the comparison is about.
Meanwhile, here are some more specific tips for you as you consider ways to make positive, intentional choices about your own approach to this…
#1: Control. Try to focus on what you can control. Comparisons are pointless if you can’t do anything about it.
#2: Other Strengths. If you come up short in your comparisons, remind yourself of other places where you are strong — the wonderful things you have, can do, or are, as well as the meaningful relationships in your life.
#3: Normality. Don’t make assumptions about what’s “normal”. Just because you see exceptional examples doesn’t mean they are typical. Think of the images the media bombard us with; is it fair to assume that most women are supermodel thin?
#4: Insides vs. Outsides. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your insides to other people’s outsides. You never know how hard someone may have worked to get effortlessly good at something. You never know what feelings of inadequacy might plague that seemingly cool, confident colleague of yours. You never know who might be comparing themselves to you and wishing for what you have, what you’ve accomplished, or the qualities you possess.
#5: Realistic Stretch. Trying to motivate and inspire yourself to reach greater heights? For mentors and role models, look to successful people who are similar to you and just a few steps ahead on the journey. Don’t get obsessed with thinking about people who have tried and failed, or with those who have excelled but share nothing in common with you, or with those who are light years ahead of you.
#6: Self-Comparisons. Like great athletes, compete against yourself, not others. Use your past accomplishments as your measuring stick, and celebrate when you make progress. Don’t get sucked into constantly comparing yourself to some ideal future version of you; you’ll never live up.
#7: Long-Term Thinking. Take the long view. Remind yourself that things can change. And then turn your attention to the comparisons that make you feel grateful, optimistic, strong, and loved.
#8: Embrace Diversity. Celebrate others’ strengths for what they are. Doing so needn’t diminish you and your many gifts. In fact, it can enrich you by helping you build stronger, warmer relationships with the people around you.
Most fundamentally, just stay aware of the comparisons you’re making and the impact they’re having on you.
If your thoughts are making you feel bad — about yourself, your life, the people around you, the things you’re capable of — then it’s time to make a change and find a different point of comparison.
Because when you start looking at things in healthy ways, you’ll realize your life is rich with blessings and that you have great worth, just as you are.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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