To compare or not compare? No, that’s not the question. The question is, against who?
We all compare ourselves to others; to people we know and even to people we don’t know. This tendency is completely normal and in some instances can even be beneficial. It serves as a way to learn from our surroundings, to self-improve and to reinforce our social-identity.
But, just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean it’s not problematic. Whilst our tendency to compare ourselves to others allows us to define our place in the world, such comparisons can and often do have a detrimental effect. Instead of giving us a sense of belonging, comparisons can make us feel excluded, inferior and alone.
Our ability to compare is stronger than ever since the advent of social media. According to Statista, the number of social media users worldwide is set to increase from 0.97 billion in 2010 to 3.09 billion by 2021, with 2.96 billion users in 2020. We now have access to sites that facilitate making career-related comparisons, and platforms on which we compare our social lives, our appearance, our sense of style, our creativity, our relationship status. We’re constantly measuring a multitude of variables, and whether it’s consciously or sub-consciously, we’re using these metrics to make comparisons on a daily basis.
How can we make comparisons in our favor?
I use one particular trick that really helps me. First, let me present an analogy that will help me explain why it works.
Think of a scientific experiment. Say a group of scientists want to test whether two plants of the same type will grow faster in type of soil A or type of soil B. The only things that can differ for this experiment to work are the types of soil. All the other external factors (amount of water, light, oxygen etc…) must be kept the same, otherwise the scientists wouldn’t know if one plant is growing faster than the other because of the soil or because of one of these other factors.
Similarly, when it comes to individuals, not only are we each subject to unique external conditions, many of which we can’t even control, but we’re all planted in different soils; we all have different backgrounds. Thankfully, how we each use our past to our advantage is something that we can control.
What helps me overcome the downfalls of making comparisons between myself and others (who come from different backgrounds) is to reflect on how I’ve grown in the soil in which I was planted; I reflect on my past to appreciate what I’ve achieved with the opportunities I had.
I often remember one particular aunt on my Dad’s side of the family. She comes from a tiny (and I mean 10-inhabitant kind of vibe) village in the mountains in the north of Spain. I love listening to her stories, but I’m always astounded by how much our lives have overlapped and yet how different they’ve been.
Her father pulled her out of school before she was 12 to look after the cattle. In the harshest of weather conditions, that was her role; a young girl, alone in the mountains looking after a herd of cows. Let me highlight the fact that I on the other hand, refused to milk a cow at summer camp.
She later married (thankfully a likewise adorable man) into a family in which, not only did she have to continue to work on the farm to the same extent as her husband, but she also had to take care of all the cooking, the cleaning, raise four children and look after several elderly relatives (I forget who and how many but one was definitely an entitled priest that doesn’t sound like the embodiment of empathy and generosity).
Would she in her wildest dreams have imagined that her grand-niece (I’ve looked it up – that’s what I am) would have been raised in the UK, studied law, lived in Brussels, Madrid, Geneva? Never, in her wildest dreams would she have contemplated this possibility. Instead of comparing myself to others who come from completely different soils, I take pride in looking back and reflecting on how I’m evolving my family’s story.
So next time you find yourself making comparisons that are only feeding negative thoughts, try again. Think about who you’re comparing yourself to. I advise that you compare against your past self and to those who came before you, and appreciate all of the things you have done to build on that foundation.