We compare our bodies to models and make ourselves feel terrible instead of accepting the beauty of nature (flabby or unsixpackly as it may be). We compare our grades to other students, wanting to be as good as her in, like, every subject. We compare careers, wishing we made the money he or she makes or that we climbed as fast. We compare stages of life and want to know why we didn’t get married/buy the house/have the kids at the same ages as our parents or grandparents or friends or enemies or delusionally idolized celebrity.
Before addressing the perils, we should acknowledge that comparing ourselves to other individuals does have valuable function. First, it lets us know where we are. If all of our other high school friends are bagging groceries and selling movie tickets, maybe it’s time for us to pull ourselves off of the couch after school. The same could be said for hitting the gym, learning fiscal responsibility, and taking up extracurriculars. Paying attention to what others are doing gives us suggestions and hints for how to improve our own lives. There are some people who, admittedly, have a chronic habit of this, worrying about their neighbors at the expense of doing something with their own damn lives, and there’s always keeping up with whatever major electronic purchases the Joneses just made. But done healthily, comparing our lives to other’s lives is a key mechanism in the evolution of personal and cultural identity. To varying degrees, we each influence and are influenced by each other. We see this most specifically in professional sports and the capitalist sector, where concrete metrics are used to judge performance. Competition creates greater ingenuity and talent, or so states the main maxim of the market.
But it can turn problematic on both psychological and sociological levels when we take this idea of comparison (and its selfish stepbrother, competition) to aspects of our personal lives that require more active consciousness on our part. Comparisons set unrealistic expectations, whether its wanting a body you’ll never have (no matter how many crunches you do) or hoping for a job outside your talents or ability levels. If you aren’t good with words you shouldn’t go into law; if you don’t have people skills maybe dealing with customers isn’t for you. Some people don’t have the dedication, energy, money, circumstances, or coordination to go to medical school (I have none of those five). Other expectations, like body type or marital status or religious conviction, can be even more tyrannical and lead to eating disorders, early divorce, and moral inferiority.
Interpersonal comparisons don’t account for our individual uniqueness, down to all the dimensions of intricacy for each person. Even if two people have similar skill as a parent, the wealth of other differences between them are going to affect what kinds of parents they actually are, not to mention the uniqueness of the children. The human being is so complex that, very often, we wind up comparing ourselves to others instead of learning how to reach the potential of our own unique selves. These comparisons can damage our self-esteem and lead to further comparisons in a brutal downward spiral like a house of mirrors where you never see your own reflection. Maybe the worst effect is that comparing ourselves to others promotes conformity and suppresses our individuality, which not only weakens the spirit of the individual but also deprives the community of that person’s true gifts.
It’s so easy to slap a categorical label on ourselves or to measure this thing with this metric and use it to define ourselves as this or that (or not this or that). And how often are we bombarded with the trite sales pitch of “Best Service,” “Best Product,” “World’s Best Grandpa.” A few weeks ago I was at a school that claimed that they had the best teachers and services, as if this word “best” means anything. What it really means is that the advertiser isn’t confident enough or clever enough to sell the product on its own merits. It’s the same mentality of the schoolyard bully: pump yourself up by putting someone down. Outside of any quantitative measurements, best is always subjective, and even then sports and stocks aren’t without their arguments and controversies.
In writing this, I saw a father in his mid-40’s with two young children. Not being that age yet, I thought, “That could be me someday.” Bam. Just read an inane article online showing what body parts of what celebrities men and women chose to represent the “perfect” male and female body (as if the idea of such an objectivity weren’t something to politely smile at). Comparison mode engaged. (Who gave that order?)
It’s natural, it’s unavoidable, it’s sometimes quite helpful. It all matters how we do it. When we use other people as a mirror and analyze our reflections, we should do it consciously, with self-awareness and self-love, and—perhaps the greatest challenge here—with a mature intuition for when to tell that comparing inner critic, “Thanks for the comment. You’re good at what you do. In the meantime, I’m gonna go lay on the beach of my life for a while. Check in with you later. Peace!”