We all know that comparison is the thief of joy. And I still stand by that, but lately, I’ve been thinking about another comparison theory too. I’ve been wondering why do we compare ourselves? And is there ever an upside to comparison?

Compare and Contrast

Remember the “Compare and Contrast” assignment in English Class?  In this kind of essay, compare means “find the similarities” and contrast means “find the differences.”

That doesn’t sound so bad. Finding similarities and differences just sounds like noticing things, being aware of things, getting more insight and perspective. According to LumenLearning, those assignments we did back in school were not meant for us to state the obvious but actually to help us to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities between two subjects.

So, if a writing assignment can train our brains to illuminate subtleties and find the unexpected, could a thought assignment help us the same way in our day-to-day lives?

And noticing that this writing assignment and now, this thought assignment is illuminating and uncovering makes me think that comparison isn’t a problem at all. It isn’t negative on its own. To say X is bigger than Y is actually neutral. 

The reason why we might think comparing is a problem, or a thief, is because of what comes after we make the comparison. 

What if that expression that we love and live by “comparison is the thief of joy” is helpful part of the time, but not the complete explanation of what comparison really does for us?

And, since, maybe because of that expression, comparison does have a negative connotation, do we need a new word for the positive kind of comparing? 

I don’t think so. I think we are smart enough to train our brains to compare in a helpful way and decide what to do with any unhelpful comparisons. 

Another famous expression is “simplicity is the purest form of sophistication,” so let’s keep it simple. Let’s just reclaim comparison. 

Why do we Compare Ourselves?

What’s the psychological reason? Dr. Leon Festinger, a social psychologist from the 40s and 50s, who is maybe best known for my favorite psychological phenomenon- cognitive dissonance, also explained that human beings can not actually define themselves intrinsically or independently. We can only define ourselves in relation to someone else. That’s why we compare. 

Dr. Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory tells us that we have a drive to evaluate our opinions and abilities accurately. And, that when there are no physical standards, we evaluate ourselves by comparison with other people.

In the past 60ish years, so much more research has been done about Social Comparison, and it’s more complex than I need to get into on this episode, but I bring this up to point out that there are psychologically helpful reasons for comparison.

Compare and Despair

Before we get to those, let’s talk about how we might be more familiar with comparison, have you heard the phrase “compare and despair?”

Implying that when you compare, you’ll despair (after all, comparison is stealing your joy, right?) Why is it “compare and despair?”

It’s when we compare in generalities, not specifics.

It’s when our mind exaggerates (against our favor) and we believe it.

To use a well known metaphor, it’s when we compare apples and oranges and subconsciously believe that because it’s all fruit its a valid comparison.

It’s when we aren’t using comparison in a helpful way.

And the really “despair” part of comparison is what comes after it. 

For example, think of some comparison statements we might hear, or say:

He’s so much smarter than me.

She has more friends than I do.

Their podcast is doing so much better than mine is.

She looks younger than me even though she’s older than me.

He always gets more attention than I do.

Those statements by themselves, if true  – which I suspect they’re not necessarily- are harmless on their own. 

They don’t sound harmless, they sound harmful, because we all probably know what we would make them mean if they were true for us. 

Less Personal Comparisons

But, consider that we could use the same sentence structures and make them less personal and familiar and we can see, they’re just comparison statements- no problem at all.

Dolphins are so much smarter than lobsters. 

The Beatles had more fans than New Kids On The Block.

House A has more bedrooms than House B. 

This recipe has less calories even though it’s a bigger serving size.

Summer temperatures are always higher than winter temperatures.

By the way, I’m not saying any of the statements in either set of examples I just gave you are true, or accurate or prove-able. I’m just pointing out how when we remove the personal elements from a comparison, it doesn’t really sound that bad. 

We probably don’t have any emotional attachment to the 2nd set of comparison statements. 

The “so” Statement

So the REAL problem, the real harm, with comparison comes when we add a second thought after we make the comparison. You know what I’m talking about? “The “so” statement.”

Maybe something like:

He’s smarter than me. so that means I’ll never be as successful.

Or, she has more friends than I do so it’s easier for her to have an amazing life.

Their podcast is doing better than mine is so I must be doing something wrong. 

Noticing the “so statement,” this additional meaning, proves to me that it’s not the comparing that’s the thief of joy, it’s the meaning we assign to the comparison. Especially a sloppy, unreliable, exaggerated comparison. No wonder there’s despair when we compare!

Compare and Aware

Let’s reclaim the action of comparing and rephrase it to “Compare and Aware”

How do we do this, you ask? Here are some ways:

Compare with Specifics

Use a fair comparison – with actual numbers, or times, and measurable facts and then get curious about what’s causing the difference.

So for the example of “their podcast is doing better than mine is so I must be doing something wrong.”

What defines “doing better?” Is it the number of downloads? Number of reviews? Number of comments on social media posts?

If I start comparing actual specific data, then I can decide if those metrics are important to me, if they are inline with my own goals and if I want to do something to change those numbers. 

Instead of saying “they’re doing better” I can notice that I think that because I see that they have a higher number of reviews of their podcast than I do, I think they’re better. 

Do I care about reviews? Is a specific number of reviews important to my goals for my podcast?

If so, I can figure out a strategy to get more reviews- maybe even by noticing how they ask their listeners for reviews. 

But, if I realize that reviews don’t matter to me and aren’t part of my goals, then, instead of thinking that they’re doing better and that I’m doing something wrong, I can just notice “wow, they have 12 more reviews than I do and their podcast started 4 months before mine started… interesting.” No need for despair!

Check our Brain for Exaggeration

During comparison, insist on facts instead, or at least acknowledge what we can’t possibly know for sure.

For the example of the comparison that “she has more friends than I do so it’s easier for her to have an amazing life.”

What do I mean when I say friends? Like friends in real life? How am I defining a friend? Does it include all the people she knows, people she spends time with (How much time? How frequently?)  

And when I say her life is amazing, what do I mean by that? It’s more fun? How am I measuring fun? It’s more interesting? How do I know if her life is interesting? 

Do I mean her life is more meaningful than mine? Hmm, how would I possibly know if someone else’s life is more meaningful than my life is.

And of course, just stating all these questions and thoughts demonstrates how unknowable all this information is. So my brain is just exaggerating and believing things as facts that are actually unknowable (and also, not relevant to me) – so again, no need for despair!

Be Systematic and Scientific

If you’re comparing your business to someone who you look up to, try to find where she was at your current stage – can you find her 5th blog post when you’ve just posted your 5th blog post? 

How do those 2 compare? Can you figure out how many clients she was working with at the 1 year mark if you’re currently at the 1 year mark?

And if we were going to be completely scientific about it, we would also need to control for the rest of the variables – so the only difference would be you and the other business owner, and every other element would need to be identical for a true comparison. And, of course, we can’t do that. We can’t go back in time and put you both at the same time starting point.

The closest you can get is to try to compare your current self to her approximate same version at your current stage – that’s a long way of saying, don’t compare the beginner you to the tenured other person. 

All of this to say, when we do decide to compare, on purpose, let’s only keep the helpful comparison methods and ignore the unhelpful ones. Let’s be very intentional about what we make a comparison mean.

And just to recap, we know, and agree and remind ourselves that comparison is the thief of joy when we’re doing it “the negative way.”

But, when we’re comparing to see progress, and notice what we can work on from a place of growth and confidence and optimism, then comparison is actually super- helpful. Not a thief at all… It’s a source of joy! 

3 Ways to Compare and (be) Aware

Here are 3 ways you might want to try to Compare and (be) Aware

Compare to Self

Compare to Self to see progress. Compare yourself to your self – your current self to your past self, to see your own progress. 

I love this method of comparing because I love seeing how far I’ve come, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve created!

I love reading my old journal entries and noticing things that were a problem or a struggle for me in the past that are no big deal for me now. 

I’ve told you how I make birthday lists each year and I love to read through those to see what I’ve created over the years and what used to seem like a big goal that is now a completed accomplishment.

I really like remembering back to when I was new at something and remembering how complicated I thought something was that now is easy and 2nd nature for me. Or how I struggled with something that I can now do on autopilot.

This kind of comparison and seeing my own progress gives me a feeling of pride. And you’ve heard the expression “Pride and Joy” right? So, you could say, this is an example of when comparison is a source of pride and joy… Or just: comparison is a source of joy – for short. 

Compare to an Expander

Compare to an expander to find possibility. Another helpful way to compare is to think about an expander. I talked a little about how I’m learning about expanders in the Practical Tips for Transformation episode

Basically, an expander is someone who is already doing what you want to do. Someone who already has what you want. You can compare yourself to them to notice what they did at your stage. Figure out how they got from where you are now to where they are now and then figure out how you can follow that path. 

I love noticing that someone who I identify with has already done what I want to do. That shows me that what I want to do is possible for someone like me.

And that point of similarity, the way I identify with them- doesn’t have to be major or meaningful, it can be the most simple, obvious similarity and my brain will let me think we’re basically twins! And if she can do it, why can’t I?

This kind of comparison gives me a feeling of “joyful optimism.” So, you could say, this is an example of when comparison is a source of “joyful optimism.”… Or just: comparison is a source of joy – for short. 

Compare to Others – Alternatives and Learning

The 3rd way to compare to be aware is by noticing what you can learn by paying attention to what is different. 

Remember the contrast part of the compare and contrast assignment? I love noticing when people think differently from me and act differently than I do. 

I have a few friends who are the opposite of me and I love hearing their take on what I’m thinking about, experiencing, or going through – because they have a completely alternate perspective to what I think about it.

And sometimes, I don’t even have to ask them, I can just imagine what they would think or do in this situation that I’ve found myself in, and that imagination exercise lets me think of an alternative that I wouldn’t have naturally thought of on my own.

By comparing how I think and do things to how people think and do things differently from me I learn so much. I learn that there’s no one right way. I learn to experiment with ideas and processes that I wouldn’t naturally come up with. I expand my horizons and my experience. 

This kind of comparison brings out the joy of learning. So, you could say, this is an example of when comparison is a source of “the joy of Learning”… Or just: comparison is a source of joy, for short. 

Can Comparison be a Source of Joy? 

What do you think, is it possible, if done with awareness and intention, that comparison could be a source of joy?

A way to feel proud? A chance to find hope? A path to growth and development? I think so! I’m excited to continue my own experimentation with this method of comparison and I hope you’ll join me. 

Who do you want to compare yourself to now? What can you notice about yourself as you compare and contrast?

Do you have any resistance to comparing yourself to yourself and to others, if so, what’s the resistance?

Get the Companion Workbook

Want to get a comparison worksheet to remind you of ways you can helpfully compare yourself? It’s included in the companion workbook, along with many of the exercises and worksheets that go along with each of the other posts on this site – so no matter when you joined me, and no matter what you’re currently working on, if you download the companion workbook you should be able to follow along with most of the worksheets and exercises that I mention. Go get that pdf right now.