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October 16, 2021

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Look at me (looking at you) (looking at me): It’s time to let go of toxic comparison

Recently I was cycling down Nanchang Road, living my best life as your columnist and heading for dinner with my loving husband, Shane. Then I saw her: 5ft’something of intense gorgeousness rarely found in the real world. I’ll be careful not to objectify a member of our community, but we’re talking tall, tanned, and impossibly toned. Dressed in spandex, she had three dogs attached on a pet-bondage belt, each submissive to her every command. She was beautiful. She was powerful. She was perfect. I got home, looked at Shane and instantly felt sorry for him.

Comparison. We all do it, and today there’s no limit to how we can, from the classmate who landed their dream job, to the walking pipe bend in your yoga class who’s just pushed out (another) perfect baby. And in the age of social media, we’re constantly assessing our blooper reel against somebody else’s highlights.

But is comparing ourselves to other people really that bad?

We’re designed to understand ourselves. The ability to self-reflect is a defining feature of humanity; it makes us look at the stars and question our purpose or inspires us to cooperate. But the only way to evaluate ourselves is in relation to something else. And since we live in a world filled with creatures that look and act like us, that something else becomes someone else. The closer the resemblance, the quicker the comparison. You won’t liken yourself to Queen Elizabeth II — too weird — but colleagues, friends and neighbors are rich pickings.

This instinct was first explored in 1954 by social psychologist Leon Festinger. He identified two kinds of social comparison. Downwards: we compare ourselves favorably. And upwards: the opposite. Both come at a price. The former has us take comfort in someone else’s misfortune, and the latter makes us feel lousy. And when we devalue others or ourselves, we’ve entered dangerous territory.

Take Andy — over on page two — I compare myself to him all the time. Not because our work is the same; it isn’t. And not because I don’t respect him; I do. But when trying to assess how I stack up, Andy’s the closest comparable. And he’s annoyingly good at his job. Other people can be a valuable source of growth and motivation, but things turn toxic when we use someone else’s talent or success as a benchmark for self-worth. We all have pre-existing ideas about who we are, and we bring them to every comparison. Useful if you think you’re shit-hot, less so if you think you’re shit. Either way, understanding ourselves in light of someone else puts our confidence, happiness and well-being at risk. Science agrees.

Research found comparison breeds bitterness, low self-esteem and mistrust. In areas with a lottery win, neighbors are more likely to make large, visible purchases and even go bankrupt. Our society loves to measure success based on the fortune of others. But success is subjective. It might be followers, status and wealth for you, connection, integrity and time for me. One thing’s for sure; when we spend most of our day looking at the lives of everyone else, we’re not really living our own.

Here’s the truth: Someone will always be better than you; more attractive, more intelligent, more popular. The irony? Your value isn’t relative to them. Or, as my therapist puts it: You’re different, not less.

So, a message to the 5ft’something of intense gorgeousness. Should this column by chance make its way over, know this: There are some 7 billion people in the world, and only one you. You are too unique to compare fairly. Your contributions, successes, talents and values are yours alone. Quit using your peers as a benchmark for success. Their achievements have nothing to do with you. Comparing ourselves is foolish, but taking inspiration is altogether wise: work hard to know the difference. Above all, you’re important because of who you are, not who you aren’t.

And from where I’m looking, you’re fabulous.


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