Saturday evening has arrived and you’re about to settle into your favorite spot on the couch and spend some quality time binge watching your favorite show. You’re anticipating an evening of decompression and self-indulgence, accompanied by a pizza from the best place in town. You’ve been looking forward to this all week.
The screen on your phone lights up, and you pick it up because it’s bright and colorful and grabs your attention. The notification you received isn’t important, but you mindlessly go through the fixed action pattern of opening up social media. You start to scroll down and see a photo of some of your friends attending an event together, with bright smiles and hints of inebriation. You consciously chose a night in, so this shouldn’t bother you.
Unexpected feelings start to bubble up. You feel slightly agitated, but you try to ignore it, so it settles as a mild discomfort in your body. Instead of looking forward to your relaxing evening, you start comparing your current experience to what you’ve just seen. You may decide your experience is lacking in contrast to the lively evenings you’ve just glimpsed on social media. You feel isolated and inferior. The action of comparing your night resulted in you enjoying it less.
The Age of Comparison
We all compare ourselves with others; we all feel unsettled by those who are superior in some area that we esteem; we all react to this by feeling some form of envy. It is wired into our nature.
With the amount of information available at your fingertips, it has never been easier to compare yourself to others. If you want a rough idea of your relative popularity and influence you can get immediate feedback from posts to Instagram or Twitter. If you’re curious about your relative career progress, you can use Glassdoor or LinkedIn to glean salary information and job titles about your peers. If want to see how your deal on your apartment or house stacks up against your neighbors, that information is readily available on Zillow or Trulia. Want to check in on an ex? You can investigate their new partner and see how you stack up. An understated facet of the massive amount of information now available is that we are able to compare ourselves to any aspect of any person we can think of. We’re truly living in the Age of Comparison.
In the past, comparisons were limited to people you stayed in touch with or saw in your day-to-day life. These days, people can linger in our awareness indefinitely. While comparison has always been a part of human nature, we’re being inundated by more stimuli than ever before — and these stimuli prompt comparisons. Instead of being present in our current surroundings, we’re conducting complex calculations about how we measure up. We’re constantly comparing our current experience to the full gamut of potential experiences we could have. As a result, we feel something is lacking in our lives.
Comparison is the Thief of Joy
Comparisons get dangerous when they lead to a debilitating, malicious form of envy. Malicious Envy leads to destructive thoughts feelings against oneself or others. We value what we have less. We feel chronically inferior. We get secretly angry or agitated when we hear of the accomplishments or successes of others. We may even try to sabotage or deflate their efforts. Even if we don’t try to actively harm others, we do enjoy moments of schadenfreude when they experience set backs.
At some point, an unplanned comparison may have an outsize impact on our mood and temperament. Research has shown that people who regularly compare themselves to others often experience feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt, or remorse.
With technology and social media, we are engaging in multitudes more comparisons than ever before. We subconsciously compare our days and nights to our social media feed. Humans are comparative creatures, but the group we are comparing against has grown exponentially, including our larger extended network and people we will never meet.
The increase in our daily upward comparisons leads to more instances of malicious envy and feelings of inferiority. Everything may have felt fine before, but after engaging in a comparison, we suddenly feel upset, agitated or inferior. We need a new term for this type of negative thought spiral — I propose comparative attack.
A comparative attack is triggered when we have a comparison with another and find ourselves lacking and inferior, which spurs on strong feelings of envy. We naturally want to rid ourselves of these feelings of inadequacy, which creates a negative spiral. In its worst form, this can represent a desire to harm the other — and if this isn’t possible, we often end up harming ourselves.
Given the amount of modern stimuli that can prompt a person to compare, comparative attacks are more common than ever. The curated lives we digest can be especially harmful when we’re feeling down. Cal Newport explains in his book Digital Minimalism:
The constant exposure to their friends’ carefully curated portrayals of their lives generates feelings of inadequacy — especially during periods when they’re already feeling low, it provides a cruelly effective way to be publicly excluded
While most comparisons will not lead to a comparative attack, we are engaging in exponentially more comparisons than before. The urge to compare is natural and human. It would be extremely difficult and likely fruitless to remove the human urge to compare from our psyche. Instead, we need to process and utilize our comparisons with effective strategies.
Coping with Comparative Attacks
It’s almost impossible to rid ourselves of the compulsion to compare ourselves with others. It is too ingrained in our nature as a social animal. Instead, what we must aspire to is to slowly transform our comparing inclination into something positive, productive, and prosocial.
Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature delves into human’s innate desire to compare. Greene argues that attempting to repress or remove the comparative instinct is fruitless — it’s an entrenched part of our human nature. Instead, we need to transform our comparisons into positive and productive outcomes. Below, I outline techniques to combat comparative attacks:
Audit your inputs
Social media has been shown to increase loneliness and depression. If you in a state where you’re already sensitive to comparison, consider taking a break from stimuli that you cannot control. We often unconsciously interact with social media, which can lead to a comparative attack before we even realize what we’re doing.
If a full withdrawal isn’t tenable, you can try to be more strategic by scheduling when you check certain apps and turn push notifications off. If you’re interested in more comprehensive strategies, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism is a great place to start.
Don’t cherry pick comparisons
You may have heard social media profiles described as people’s highlight reels. This is important when it comes to making comparisons. People are inclined to put their best foot forward and rarely are things as perfect as they seem.
We compare people’s best features to areas in which we are lacking. If you’re able to imagine the full life of the person you feel inferior to, warts and all, it can help humanize them and mitigate comparative attacks.
Naval Ravikant describes a great way of handling this on during his interview with Farnam Street:
You can’t cherry pick the things you envy so much about the other person. You would have to take a 180 degree swap with that person. (You would have to take her age, her family history, her struggles, her failures, her medical conditions, her pains, her parents, her friends, everything. And lose everything you have built and leave everyone you love behind.) And unless you are totally comfortable with that swap, you shouldn’t be envious.
The Inner Scorecard
Keeping an Inner Scorecard is paramount to dealing with comparative attacks. Your self worth needs to come from within. Do not compromise your own standards, your own goals and values in order to earn admiration.
The big question about how people behave, is whether they’ve got an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard.
If we play for an external scoreboard, we are acting with the goal of being admired, versus the goals we have set for ourselves. As a result, we will continually suffer comparative attacks. It’s essential you keep your own scoreboard and judge your own progress.
Practice Mitfreude (Joying With)
The Dalai Lama has said, ‘The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being.” We can find true meaning in celebrating the successes of others.
Robert Greene introduced me to the concept of Mitfreude, which means ‘joying with’ in German. Your goal is to actively empathize with others good fortune. There are few better feelings than the genuine excitement from someone we care about. We can put that feeling back in the world.
Translate envy into emulation
When comparing yourself to someone results in you feeling inferior or envious, redirect that energy into a productive and creative energy to progress to their level. This is how people can find upward comparisons motivating, rather than discouraging.
In order for this to work, we need to have the confidence we have the capacity to raise ourselves up. Additionally, we need a solid work ethic to back up this confidence. Reframing your envy into motivation can be a very powerful tool.
Engage in downward comparisons
When comparing ourselves to others, we have a tendency to focus on upward comparisons, people we perceive to be above us in status or achievement. This can lead to feelings of envy and inferiority.
However, there are innumerable people who have less than we do. Reminding ourselves of this will make us more grateful for what we have, rather than focusing on what we don’t. As Robert Greene states, “gratitude is the best antidote to envy.”
A word of caution — try not to attach your self-worth to downward comparisons. Whether it’s upwards or downwards, comparisons still relate to other people, not your internal scorecard.
Admire human greatness
As mentioned above, we’re more likely to engage in upward comparisons rather than downward ones. We share this planet with some incredible humans. Use this as an opportunity to see the highest potential of our species and marvel at what humans are able to do and achieve.
We are unknowingly and unwittingly engaging in many more comparisons than in any previous time period. This increase in comparisons has led to more instances of feeling inferior or insufficient, which can lead to malicious and self-destructive outcomes.
Remember, your comparative thoughts are a natural part of being a human being and are nothing to be ashamed of. It’s also natural to have periodic feelings of envy or inferiority after making a comparison.
Try to channel these comparisons into productive feelings of motivation and gratitude and you can change a debilitating moment and turn it into a positive outcome. Next time you feel a comparative attack, try and accept your comparative nature, think about these techniques, and move forward in a positive way. Comparison does not need to steal joy from the present moment.