Whenever I tell someone about the research I am working on and I say something like “well, I’m studying how your relationships can be affected by allowing others to define who you are,” there’s often a slightly confused look in their eyes.

But when I clarify further by saying, “you know, things like comparing yourself with others,” a light goes on, and knowing nods start happening.

How to stop comparing yourselfOh yes. We know comparison. We are very familiar with what that’s like.

There’s a reason that we so commonly throw around clichés about comparison like “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”

It’s because we are so incredibly prone to comparing ourselves to others.

In fact, try googling “quotes about comparison” and you’ll get a huge list of sayings about loving who you are and not comparing yourself with others.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

~ Theodore Roosevelt

“Stay in your lane. Comparison kills creativity and joy.”

~ Brené Brown

“Personality begins where comparison leaves off.”
~ Shannon L. Alder

Seriously, there are hundreds, if not thousands. And frankly, many are really beautiful and profound.

It’s not like we don’t know that comparison is robbing us of happiness. Clearly we do, or there wouldn’t be so many quotes about not doing it.

Which must mean that it’s because we have a hard time stopping. (Read more on how to stop comparing yourself to others here.)

Our whole world today seems wired for comparison. When you can, at any moment of any day, hop on a device and see exactly what others are sharing about their lives, it’s easy to start to compare your own to theirs.

And that gets us so rooted in the mindset of comparison so that it almost becomes second nature to want to gauge our own life by that of others.

Could Comparison Be a Good Thing?

In some ways, this is totally normal. How else would I know who I am if not by comparing with others?

I love to bake, and I make really good cookies.Stop comparing myself

How do I know this about myself?

Well, I can look around and see that not everyone bakes cookies regularly. It’s not like it’s an inherent trait that everyone has. In fact, some don’t ever bake cookies—it’s just not their thing. By comparison, I can learn that I like to do this more than the average person. Aha! I’m a baker.

I’ve also tasted many cookies in my life, and I tend to really like how mine taste compared to some others. Again, I’ve learned by comparison that I’m a good cookie maker. (Although of course that’s totally objective and my husband hates it when I talk about how good I think my cookies are.)

Anyone else craving cookies now…?

On the other hand, I am not a good artist. I can’t even draw a decent stick figure…and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. I see other people’s art and I’m in awe of what they are able to do, how their brain works, how their hands work, and how they create this beautiful art.

By comparison, I learn that I am not an artist.

The point is, we often learn about who we are in reference to who others are.[1] (This is especially true in childhood.)

So maybe in that way, comparison could be good.

Or Is It a Bad Thing?

But I probably don’t have to cite any research for you to know that comparison can be terribly harmful. (Though you know I’m going to tell you what the research says anyway—in a minute.)

Think about ways that comparison has made you feel.

Here’s just one example from my own life.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably compared your own children or your own parenting to others. So have I.

Why we compare ourselvesI remember years and years ago when my oldest was still a toddler. I was at a church Easter egg hunt and the kids were all running around with their baskets. One kid ran into another kid and baskets and eggs and candy went everywhere. (This probably happens at many Easter egg hunts.)

What stands out in my mind about this event is that another little kid who was probably only about 4 at the time didn’t even hesitate. He hit the floor immediately and started helping the other kid who’d lost his candy.

It was so sweet to me how quickly this little guy jumped in to help and I thought to myself ‘that’s the kind of kid I want to raise.’

And truthfully, I’d still like to feel like I was raising kids like that.

But if I stop to compare that behavior to, say, my own child who just stormed up the stairs in a fit of rage yelling horrifying things about himself and our family, I’m not going to be feeling so good about myself as a parent or the child I am raising.

On the other hand, if I can stop the comparison and just look at my own child and his needs, see how I can help him learn to regulate his emotions, and also see all of the goodness that’s in him, I’m going to feel a lot more satisfied with him and myself. But this isn’t always my first instinct. It’s easier to jump straight to the comparison.

The point is, we all compare, all the time. We do it way more than we probably even realize.[2] It’s nearly constant.

We compare our houses, our yards, our clothes, our standing, our grades, our athletic abilities, our income, our accomplishments, our bodies, our cars, our happiness, our health, our relationships, our skin color. The list is endless.

And you and I both know that we often compare our worst (kid yelling rage words as he heads to time out) with someone else’s best (kid helping another kid collect his candy).

Or we compare our house after a long day of cooking and laundry and kids making messes to the carefully crafted picture an influencer posted of her kitchen in all its glory.

Let’s be clear though that comparison isn’t always putting yourself below other people. We also compare when we put ourselves above others. I’m clearly a better driver than the guy that just cut me off in traffic. Or wow, my yard sure looks better than my neighbor’s.

We do both kinds, upward and downward comparisons, all the time.

We know better. But we do it anyway.

Here’s the Research:

And surprise, surprise, comparing with others can really undermine your happiness in just about every aspect of your life.

Research shows that your relationships with others suffer when you compare. People who compare a lot (as in, we all do it, but some more than others) are less happy with their romantic partners, are less able to share who they are with others (have less emotional intimacy in their relationships), and have less fulfillment in their sex life.[3]

Comparing yourself with other people can also lead you to feel less secure and content about who you are. Probably didn’t have to tell you that, right? It makes sense. And it can also contribute to mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.[4]

People who compare a lot are also less likely to think for themselves, have less creativity, and are more likely to conform to others’ standards.[5]

These are just some of the things that comparison does to us.

Why, why, why?

You can see how damaging comparison really is to our lives, so why do we do it all the time?

It almost seems as if comparing with others stems from a healthy place. Like I talked about at the beginning, we start out by looking to others to gain a better sense of who we are. That can, at some level, be a healthy way to gain self-knowledge.

The problem comes when we want to prove to ourselves that we are somehow better than someone (or everyone) else. It seems like we are always searching for ways to put ourselves into a hierarchy: I’m a little better than you because I got a better grade on that test or I’m a little better than you because my house is bigger.

And comparison is the obvious avenue for this.

Most people actually prefer comparing themselves to people who are slightly better off than they are, if they can do this privately, without others realizing they are doing it.[6] Also, they like it better if they are comparing with a stranger, rather than family or friends.

This is because it can help a person reach for something slightly better than what they’ve got so that they can stretch and improve. This is NOT comparing my kids’ worst behavior with other kids’ best. This is more about seeing someone you admire doing something you’d like to do and think you possibly could do with a little work and reaching for that.

Stop comparing myself to othersThis might look like a 7th grader watching how the 8th graders play in their basketball game and hoping that she can play like that next year too.

Or a mom noticing another mom at the park coaxing her child into leaving the park without a tantrum in an admirable way and deciding maybe she could try that too.

Maybe a couple admires the way another works through their challenges and tries to make their own interactions a little bit more like that couples.’

Not a bad thing, right?

The problem is that it can be a little painful to always be comparing yourself to people who are performing better than you (at whatever the task). That’s when we decide to take a break from that challenging, stretching comparison and instead start to look down on people who we think are worse off than we are. Ah! Her kid’s having a full-on meltdown at the store. Doesn’t she know how to parent better than that? My kid would never do that.

And there we are, right back to stratifying ourselves. Putting ourselves above another…until our own kid does have that meltdown (because they inevitably will) and now we’ve set ourselves up to compare to other people’s parenting and to feel bad about our own.

And it becomes a never-ending cycle.

What to Do? (How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others) 

The best thing to do when you think you might be engaging in comparison (because you probably are right along with the rest of us) is to pay attention.

Open your eyes to it this week. Look for the ways you are doing it and call yourself out on it. (You can either do this privately or talk with a trusted friend.)

As you see the ways you are comparing yourself with others, ask yourself why? What’s making you want to compare right now? Are you trying to make yourself feel better by putting yourself above someone else? Or are you wallowing and feeling bad about yourself because you’re comparing to something that you perceive as better than you?

Then stop. In that moment, stop the comparison.

I know, it’s not easy. That’s why I said in that moment. Stop it when you notice it and focus on something else. Because you’re likely to find yourself doing it again and again. But if you can stop yourself in some of those moments, it’s going to get easier and easier to stop yourself more often.

And you’ll feel better about yourself when you stop putting others above you and below you and recognize that we’re all just on a playing field together and can cheer each other on and play for the same team.

No comparison needed.

Why Comparison is More Than Just the Thief of Joy

[1] Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations7(2), 117-140.

[2] Buunk, A. P., & Gibbons, F. X. (2007). Social comparison: The end of a theory and the emergence of a field. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes102(1), 3-21.

[3] Price, A.A., Leavitt, C.E., Larsen Gibby A., Holmes, E. K. (manuscript in progress) How Does External Referencing Define Sense of Self and Link to Relational Well-being?

[4] Butzer, B., & Kuiper, N. A. (2006). Relationships between the frequency of social comparisons and self-concept clarity, intolerance of uncertainty, anxiety, and depression. Personality and individual differences41(1), 167-176.

[5] Buunk, A. P., & Gibbons, F. X. (2007). Social comparison: The end of a theory and the emergence of a field. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes102(1), 3-21.

[6] Gibbons, F. X., Lane, D. J., Gerrard, M., Reis-Bergan, M., Lautrup, C. L., Pexa, N., et al. (2002a). Comparison level preferences after performance: is downward comparison theory still useful? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 865–880.

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