I constantly compare myself to people I know or to complete strangers. Do other people do this? It’s a big part of my self-esteem problem! I never feel beautiful enough, loving enough, successful enough, happy enough, or spiritual enough. Even this comparison habit seems like something wrong with me compared to others. Why am I so obsessed with comparing?
KEVIN: The first thing I want you to know is that you’re not living with some weird, rare affliction. Given Earth’s current population, I’d say the answer to “Do other people do this?” is: “Yes, yes, eight billion times yes!” I hope you can let go of comparing your comparing!
In A World Waiting to Be Born, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote:
Richard Bolles once labeled human beings as ‘the comparing creatures.’ It is an apt designation. By virtue of our awareness of self, we are endlessly comparing ourselves with others. Are we bigger or smaller? More or less beautiful, handsome? Younger or older? Richer or poorer? Smarter or more stupid? Less or more powerful? Et cetera, et cetera ad infinitum. Our destiny as comparing creatures, ceaselessly measuring ourselves against our fellow beings, is simultaneously one of the greater blessings and curses of the human condition.
Acknowledging that all human beings are prone to comparing probably doesn’t take the intensity out of your struggle with it. Our tendency to compare is on a continuum—and the more we compare, the more miserable we’re likely to feel. When we hope to ease our insecurities by sizing ourselves up against others, we may think we “win” some of these comparisons. But like an addicted gambler, we’ll find that the wins don’t outweigh the losses. The comparison game is rigged against us ever coming out ahead because it is based on the belief that we can determine our worth by measuring ourselves against others. This way of building self-esteem is like making a sandcastle at low tide.
I found unexpected inspiration recently in a television advertisement for Fitbit. As athletes in the ad work out in various ways, each asks, “What’s strong with me?” At first I heard the line as “What’s wrong with me?” Whenever we’re comparing ourselves to others we’re essentially asking, “What’s wrong with me?” When we focus on our unique gifts we’re shifting to “What’s strong with me?”
Consider the shapes of the initial letters in “wrong” and “strong.” The 'w' in “wrong” makes me think of a bumpy up-and-down ride—which is what we get when we seek to secure our worth by comparing. The 's' in “strong” helps me imagine the winding river of life flowing through all of my gifts and limitations.
The fact that we’re comparing creatures is part of what makes so many people feel anxious or down after spending time on social media. We get snapshots of people’s vacations, parties, or other highlights, and we slip right into comparison mode. When we do this we’re comparing our insides to others’ outsides. As a therapist I know that no matter what people are showing the world on the outside, there’s a lot more complexity on the inside.
I’m grateful for the Buddha’s wisdom about life’s inherent unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), but no one I know is longing for dukkha! We long to be happy, and we seem to be afraid that others have found happiness and we’re missing out. Maybe we can just relax by remembering we all have it all—laughter and tears, joy and pain, success and failure.
Rather than trying to completely get over our tendency to compare, perhaps we could loosen our hold on measuring ourselves against others and focus instead on an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. We won’t see a full picture of ourselves if we focus only on “What’s strong with me?” any more than if we obsess about “What’s wrong with me?”
I think we’re wise when we assume that every facet of who we are is like a coin. The flip side of each strength is a weakness and the counterpart to every weakness may be a strength. If we’re walking around thinking we’re composed of 99 strengths and one weakness, we’re assessing ourselves with a weighted coin. Strength and weakness are paired in each of us as surely as light and dark, hot and cold, and joy and sorrow are paired in the world.
It’s natural for people to see therapy as the place to fix problems, but often what most needs fixing is not our human weaknesses but our way of judging ourselves harshly for having them. This is most apparent in working with couples. No matter what problem a couple brings to therapy, it is the energy with which they are approaching the problem that most needs fixing. Until the energy becomes less reactive, judging, and harsh and more compassionate and accepting, trying to fix the problem will be like spinning a truck tire deeper and deeper into the mud.
In a way there is a couple relationship inside each of us. The insecure, not-good-enough self and the harsh, judging, or perfectionistic self are perpetually at battle in us. These are really just two faces of the wounded self. One worries “What’s wrong with me?” and the other inflames the anxiety by heaping on self-judgment.
The inner dialogue we need is between the insecure what’s-wrong-with-me self and the compassionate what’s-strong-with-me self. Though it can seem hard to hear when we’re caught in self-criticism, the voice of self-compassion isn’t that hard to imagine. It’s how a loving friend speaks to us when we’re feeling down or insecure. That voice gently encourages us to let go of shame for having weaknesses and reminds us that we are always both beautiful and broken. Working on this inner dialogue is the most accessible path for becoming a kinder, more accepting, and less judging human being.
When we live closer to “What’s strong with me?” than “What’s wrong with me?” we can turn down the frequency and intensity of comparing ourselves with others. But this is just my take on it. Maybe some far better writer or wiser therapist would have come up with a much more helpful response to your question!