By Dr. Stuart Sadler, Psychologist
As people we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves with others, and often come out feelings worse off for it.
Whether we use money, how we look, whether we’re thin enough, successful enough, liked enough, there’s always someone that’s going to be “better” than us in some way in at least one of these areas.
Quite often, we tend to look at other people’s traits in isolation: “John has a better job than me”, “Mary manages her mental health better than me”, and “Claire’s family like her more than mine”.
Why is this? There are several reasons. Let’s look at these in turn:
The Hero’s Journey Fallacy
When we see someone being successful in a way that we want to be, we don’t see or consider their journey in getting there… and if we do, we have a tendency to minimise it.
For example, John might have a better job than us – but we don’t consider the numerous rejections and times he’s almost given up before getting there.
We see Mary’s smiles and hear her giving advice to others, but we don’t consider that this may have come from years of therapy from the depression she experienced on and off throughout her life.
Similarly, Claire gets on with her family, but this is only after years of estrangement and fall outs that have recently been patched up.
When we compare ourselves to others, we only see the end result and also often ignore the journey that got them there. Quite often, the person themselves would not have chosen to go through their hardship they experienced, even though to others it seems as though they now have “the perfect life”.
There is a well established phenomenon in psychology that we tend to filter out experiences that don’t agree with or match our emotional state or existing beliefs at that time.
For example, if we feel depressed and lonely, we’re more likely to remember how the person at the bus stop grunted at us when we gave a friendly “hello” and use that as proof that we’re not worth talking to and that there must be something wrong with us.
But then we ignore how, a few minutes later, the person sat next to us on the bus made conversation with us or gave us a big smile and a warm greeting… that doesn’t fit with our belief is therefore forgotten, ignored or made to be a positive trait about them rather than us (“They were just being friendly”).
Confirmation bias means that we pay more attention to, or only let through, experiences that seem to confirm our existing beliefs or feelings. When we ignore the rest, our view of the world, ourselves or other people can seem quite extreme and we neglect signs that things are maybe not as bad as we feel.
Of course, things don’t always go our way, but as human beings we also have a tendency to latch onto and personalise the negative which can make us feel worse or more of a failure than the real world actually suggests we are.
Can you read minds? Of course no-one can truly read minds. Even the greatest magicians admit that their illusions in doing so are down to skilled trickery.
It’s quite common though, to often convince ourselves that we know how other people are feeling or what they might be thinking. The problem with mind reading is that we can forget that other people don’t share the same fears, insecurities or problems that we do.
- Is it possible that the person we feel jealous of for being thinner than us might worry about their weight more than we know?
- Is there a chance that the person you look up at for having a successful career might actually worry about losing everything rather than be confident for “having made it”?
- Could that person that has everyone liking them feel exhausted from constantly trying to be liked, rather than it being something that comes naturally?
Of course, we’ll never know (we can’t read minds, remember?), but it’s easy to forget that other people also experience anxieties, concerns, and have their own problems, especially when we project what we think they must be thinking onto other people.
The final bias we make is that we often don’t compare ourselves to others as a whole, but in terms of selection of their best features.
As mentioned, we might notice that John has a better job… but we don’t compare how he struggles with his health because of the stress of his job, or his failing relationship. We admire how Mary copes with problems, but we don’t consider that she never speaks to her family or that she never seems to have time to herself.
When we think about it, it’s not fair or realistic to pick and choose traits from different people and want to combine them into one whole “Super person”.
If that super person existed, they’d be one amazing person and everyone would be in awe of them.
But that isn’t real life.
People are more like a series of bar charts where everyone has some strengths and some weaknesses and even if they worked on their weaknesses to get rid of them, some of their strengths would then be relative weaknesses.
The best we can do is to improve the areas of life we can improve, and maximise our strengths in those areas of life that are already there. It’s likely that this is what John and Mary and other people we look up to people are doing, and is more likely to lead to a more genuine and happy life.
Using an app such as Myndr to help guide you can help you release the burden of comparison and help you become the best version of yourself that you can be.