Understanding Comparison and Learning to Use it Positively

Stop fighting the programming. Start rewriting the code.

Photo by Greg Raines on Unsplash

There are certain things about being human that are highly unlikely to ever change. Base-level programming, if you will. The comfort of community, the fight-or-flight instinct, and fascination with fire. It’s all in there.

Like it or not, the action of comparing ourselves to others is also part of that human operating system. We’re not going to shake it. But we can choose what apps we run on it.

I remember being in grade school and seeing a friend at school with a new backpack. I couldn’t tell you what color it was or even what my own looked like. I probably had the same exact backpack from the previous season. What did I know about product releases and marketing in 5th grade, right?

I do recall feeling some faint jealousy. And comparing my own grade school utility kit, felt lesser as a result. Which of course, makes no sense. But the act of comparison killed any enjoyment of whatever was happening that day.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

— Teddy Roosevelt

Kids have a lot to learn about the world. That’s why they’re kids. And I was no different in that story. Notably, because I wasn’t even aware of that internal comparison happening.

As functioning humans who can drive cars and pay taxes, we have a little more experience under our belts. Yet we still suffer from the same annoying programming that kids do. Only we can do something about it, with a little practice.

The secret is understanding the two different types of comparison. Then we can do a little mental rewiring.

Upward Comparison

This is the one we all think about first. Upward comparison happens whenever we compare ourselves to someone we perceive to be in a better place. Financially, socially or however you like.

And thanks to social media, we’ve all become hyper-aware of others’ “highlight reels”. The result is our constant ability to compare ourselves upward, to those we know and many we do not.

The Negative Risk: It’s obvious, right? We make ourselves feel like we’re not where we should or could be, based on how someone else is doing. This can be deflating to self-confidence, motivation and happiness. It can stop you from starting or continuing something you love. Social vanity metrics are the real killer, let’s be real.

The Positive Reframing: It sounds cheesy but the truth is to let this motivate you. We all love bucketing photos, quotes, and other social content into “inspiration” folders. Do that with anything that appears in your comparison sphere. Only don’t pack it away. Accept that your path is yours and yours alone; that of others serves only to inspire and nothing else. Frame everything you see as “better” to be goal-fuel; not an aspect of yourself that “isn’t good enough.”

Downward Comparison

This is the mental demon that appears as your friend, comforting you when things get ugly. When you experience anything that hits you right in the self-esteem weak spot.

But this one usually gets framed in a way that seems harmless. What is the phrase we’ve all heard when complaining about our problems? Or wishing for something after comparing ourselves to others?

“It could always be worse.”

Welcome to downward comparison. We envision someone doing worse by comparison, in whatever category, and feel better. But that requires the perceived misfortune of someone else. I think we can all agree that’s not a sustainable approach.

The Negative Risk: Sure we may recover some damage to our self-esteem. We’re doing better than someone else in the category where threatened. But now we lean on that person again and again. Our downward comparison crutch clouds our vision. The result is only seeing the hardships of those others. And completely missing out on the great things they’re achieving.

The Positive Reframing: Think about your position in an empathetic manner. Ask yourself if there’s any chance this other person could see you in the opposite way. They might be making an upward comparison to you. For every person you know “doing better” than you, there’s someone who aspires to be like you.

Studies show that our instinct is to feel better through the practice of downward comparison. Again, our neanderthal programming is shooting us in the foot.

Instead, let’s stop it in its tracks. Allow the downward comparison to spark empathy and compassion. Be social, transparent, and supportive of everyone in your various circles. Notice and celebrate their successes. Take yourself out of the comparison machine whenever possible.

Three Key Alternatives

1. Compare Yourself to Yourself

Feeling that upward comparison coming on? Turn the light on your own past by comparison instead. We’re all fighting time but the awesome thing is that it allows us to improve. Only we forget that bigger picture most of the time. Chart any and all growth on whatever timeline you choose. Realize you are living the best version of yourself right now.

2. Upgrade Your Inner Voice

You know that pep talk you would give a friend when they’re feeling down? It’s time to stop reserving that for everyone but yourself. It’s time that your inner voice grows up. Ditch the insecure little kid in your head. Start being the person who unapologetically champions your own wins.

You know, like a great friend would after knowing you for your entire life.

3. Attempt Social Detox

I’m not saying delete all your social apps and only communicate via postcard. Decide on certain social detox hours during the day. Stay away from anything that will turn down the brightness on a good day.

Feeling inspired and good about whatever you’re doing? Awesomesauce. Now put down the phone, turn off the web browser, and keep doing whatever you’re doing. Need a little push? Try a productivity app like Flipd, and hold yourself accountable.

Now you know a little more about that comparison code built into your brain. With a little practice and perspective, you’re now armed with ways to be an even better you. All without the need to compare yourself to anyone else.

Give it a go. Consider if you’re making those upward or downward comparisons. And rewrite the code.

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Exploring how to thrive as a multi-disciplinary entrepreneur, one existential crisis at a time. ✖ Writing about the journey and the lessons that come with it.

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