Comparison standards are exactly what they sound like. They are the benchmarks that we use to evaluate our “self” and “the others”. We do this so that we can compare our lives against others’ lives, and make value judgments. And, they are usually automatic. It is natural human tendency to compare ourselves to others. We justify our comparisons by thinking that we are using our comparisons as motivation tools. We think that once we compare and contrast, we can find out exactly how and where we can grow to be exactly like the people we compare ourselves against. In reality, this process actually cuts into our creativity and growth and severely limits our potential.
Comparison standards — in the context of their influence on our thoughts and actions — are often brought up in Gender Studies, Psychology, Sociology and Sexuality Studies. Within these fields, the focus is usually on how watching pornography creates comparison standards that are detrimental to the self and to relationships. The story doesn’t stop there, however. The detrimental effects of comparison standards apply to almost all other aspects of our lives too. We end up trying to match our reality against the “fantasy” that we have created about someone else’s “better life”. While we think that they might light a fire in us to improve, comparison standards have many negative effects on our psyches and our lives:
Comparison standards create unrealistic expectations of the “self” and others.
Social Learning theories and Social Comparison theories teach us that when we evaluate our lives, we compare ourselves to others in order to figure out our “rank”. We also tend to compare ourselves to those who seem better off than us in some way. When this happens, we add an incredible amount of effort into unfeasible plans, impossible strategies and unrealistic expectations to “one-up” the others. This further frustrates us, making our plans and strategies even more difficult to complete. In the process of trying to become like “others” we forget to be true to ourselves. We forget that we can still be authentic, whole human beings with passions and potential of our own.
Comparison standards color our perceptions and judgments about other people.
Our brains are cognitive misers. When we are comparing ourselves to others in this context, we look for signs of how we are different from them in positive and negative traits, but we don’t dig deep enough. A superficial scan gives us four possible outcomes: similarity in positive traits, dissimilarity in positive traits, similarity in negative traits, and, dissimilarity in negative traits. But the problem here is that this is only a surface analysis, often based on the extremely limited, selectively curated information we have about the other person.
So, we end up overestimating or underestimating things, often dramatically. We think that those who are extremely successful are privileged and lucky, while we have the misfortune of being unlucky and disadvantaged in many ways. Yes, it is true that many highly successful people start off from places of privilege. But, many also have had a lifetime of struggles and obstacles that they have had to overcome in order to achieve their successes. When we compare, we fail to take those into account. We reduce the other person and ourselves into stereotypical representations and judge based on that. We limit our possibilities for growth by getting caught up in this process.
Comparison standards decrease our sense of self-worth.
Comparison standards make us feel inadequate or unsuccessful when we compare ourselves against others. They create self-doubt, making us relive all the potentially “bad decisions” we made in our lives. They recreate all of our “what if” moments in painful detail.
In the midst of all that self-doubt, our comparison standards marginalize the positive aspects of our lives, which then make us feel ungrateful, and worse. Ultimately, comparison standards decrease our sense of self-worth in a never-ending feedback loop of doubt, envy and guilt. When we don’t feel worthy, we harm our potential in catastrophic ways.
Comparison standards increase negativity across our relationships and sense of connection with others.
A relationship in the loosest sense of its usage is an interaction or bond between two or more objects, concepts or entities. Comparison standards make us less effective communicators in all our relationships, by increasing negative attitudes towards those relationships.
This is because when we compare ourselves to others, and find differences, we attribute these differences to their personality, especially when you don’t know them personally. Think about it: You are at a party with a group of friends, and acquaintances, where one member of your group (someone you don’t really know) is an obnoxiously loud drunk; or when you are at work, and you meet with a team member who seems lost or ignorant. Do you consider their behaviors to be “just one of those days”, or, do you chalk up their behaviors to “personality flaws”?
Turns out, it depends on your comparison standards. When we evaluate others and ourselves and pass judgment on them, it affects our attitudes and behaviors toward these people. Even if we don’t verbalize our feelings, or don’t overtly act in a negative manner toward them, our body language – facial expressions, body posture, rigidity etc. – expresses and conveys our negativity to others, affecting our relationships in a negative way.
Comparison standards take the focus away from our achievements.
By thinking about all the ways in which we don’t match up to others, comparison standards force our focus onto our failures and mistakes. They take away from the time that we need to relish in our accomplishments and learn from our achievements. When we compare ourselves to others, especially those who have seemingly better lives, it often creates an idea in our minds that we somehow haven’t done enough to be successful. We force ourselves to work better, faster, and longer, all the time! This builds a psyche, a culture and an economy based on unhealthy, impractical competition.
Look around. We are currently living in exactly such a culture, where comparison standards have become the very fabrics that our modern society has been built into. We are never satisfied with what we own, what we have achieved, or what we are accomplishing. We learn that contentment is the root of stagnation! We believe that the rat race doesn’t have an end!
If we don’t allow ourselves to be satisfied with our accomplishments, how can we possibly appreciate them, and express gratitude? Even more importantly, how can we objectively assess ourselves, our growth, and take steps to further increase our growth and potential?
Comparison standards damage self-esteem, and other aspects of mental health.
These days, social media platforms across the world are flooded with stories, images and videos of “ideals” across all topics and walks of life. Our senses are overwhelmed with content on “ideal bodies”, “ideal career”, “ideal partner”, “ideal boss”, “ideal employee”, “ideal company”, or the antitheses of all of these. In such an over-exposed, over-critical, over-competitive day and age, it becomes almost impossible for the average person to feel even marginally adequate!
Comparison standards eat away at our self-esteem, making us feel even more inferior and vulnerable than we really are. These experiences compound our sense of failure, and create feelings of jealousy and resentment. We worry, we brood, our appetites and sleep patterns are disrupted, we feel panicky, and fatigued, and we end up leading ourselves straight into a psychological mood disorder!
All of these points may seem extreme or drastic to highlight the negative effects of comparisons. Some might even argue that it is only by comparing that we motivate ourselves to accept challenges and grow. But even that argument in itself limits our potential. It is based on an external motivation that is temporary and isn’t sustainable. When we use comparisons to motivate us, what usually ends up happening is that in the long run we get even more demotivated as we see the other person continuing to grow and expand their potential while we remain stagnant. We use their techniques but fail to think creatively to come up with our own solutions to our own problems. Ultimately, the only real long-term way to grow and expand our limits is to be intrinsically motivated to achieve our goals. Our dreams should not be dependent on anyone but us. No matter how big our dreams are, we have the internal capabilities to work toward them, without having to ever compare our lives with anyone else’s. This is how we start to realize the limitlessness of our potential and it is the only way to start any journey of transformation.