Why We Compare Ourselves to Others (and Why It’s a Horrible Idea)

I have many faults, but comparing myself to other people ranks near the top.

As someone who has struggled with mild cases of both depression and anxiety disorders most of their life, I am acutely aware of the fact that looking towards the “greener grass” of other people’s lives is one of the fastest ways to reach the downward spiral.

It’s dark, it’s lonely, and it’s ultimately empty at the bottom.

It permeates every aspect of my life: as a preacher, I want to be the best communicator; as a husband, I want to be the best friend I can be; as a father, I want to be the greatest leader.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to be on Facebook these days. A simple tap on my phone and I am instantly bombarded with a revolving door of narcissism, with the pictures of everyone else’s life reminding me where I have failed and where I need to improve…now.

I’m convinced this is why Solomon wrote passages like Proverbs 14:30: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”

Like Eve in the Garden, a discontent heart can eat away at your soul until you finally seek consolation in things that drive man away from God and into the arms of the world (1 John 2:16).

So What’s Really Going On Here?

In technical terms, comparing ourselves to others is called “Social Comparison Theory” – a term coined by Leon Festinger during the 1950’s as a part of his research paper for the Journal of Human Relations. In his paper, Festinger outlined nine hypotheses for the process of social comparison, starting with the first, which states: “There exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities.” No argument there.

Festinger went on to argue that everyone has two needs when it comes to comparing themselves with others: the need to improve their own abilities and the need to maintain a positive self-image. To do both of those, we need to have an accurate picture of who we are and where we stand.

This is where it gets tricky. In order to accurately evaluate yourself, you have to identify someone who is your most similar “other” (i.e. someone whom you have the most crucial elements in common). For instance, if you’re trying to determine how athletic you are, you may choose someone that is the same age: if you best them somehow, you are clearly more athletic, and vice versa.

Motivation is key. Further developments of Festinger’s theory concluded that we tend to evaluate ourselves against people that are either better than us (upward comparison) or those who are “worse” (downward comparison). Given the opportunity, we tend to compare ourselves with those we deem our betters, but if we’re especially unhappy or unmotivated, we sometimes make ourselves feel better by looking down our noses at our “inferiors,” saying things like “At least I’m not like that guy!” Whether the person is actually worse than you is irrelevant; in an attempt to make yourself feel better, every other person in the world has flaws that you don’t have, thus making your self-evaluation inaccurate and, quite frankly, arrogant.

Upward comparison is an attribute of a strong-minded person and is usually indicative of someone who wants to upgrade their own abilities. However, upward comparisons are only helpful if you are willing to change your life. If not, it’ll result in denigrating the upward standard by which you look up to, by calling it names, denying its superior status, or one of any number of excuses.

Downward comparison is nothing more than an ego boost – an attempt to maintain positive self-perception by downing others. People that feel particularly threatened are more likely to engage in downward comparisons with their “inferiors.” In this viewpoint, even your so-called failures in life can be considered a success when compared to the lives of others.

As one person wrote in summary: “lateral comparisons serve self-evaluation, downward comparisons serve self-enhancement, and upward comparisons serve self-improvement.”

Which one do you engage in?

Social Comparison Theory in the New Testament

Now that we’ve taken that little detour down Psychology alley, how does it apply to the life of a Christian? I’m glad you asked!

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus teaches a parable that illustrates this concept almost to a “T”.  In fact, Luke even opens this section by saying that He preached it to some people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” This “downward comparison” towards those they viewed as less worthy in the sight of God gave them a sense of pride (and relief) that they weren’t like “other people” (Luke 18:11).

In this parable, the tax collector is comparing his so-called righteousness against that of his “inferiors,” which gives him a sense of vain pride in his own “accomplishments” and a lack of desire to better himself in the way that truly matters: humility. The publican, on the other hand, refused to lift his eyes towards God – but clearly had Him in mind when he beat his breast – and asked for forgiveness. By comparing himself to the perfect standard of God, he realized his own failings (1 Cor. 11:1).

Another example is seen in 2 Corinthians 10:12, where Paul says: “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; bu when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.”

The argument that Paul is making here is that you cannot – and should not – compare how holy you are with those around you. Not only are imperfect models of holiness, but it creates a false understanding of your own righteousness when you compare yourself to an imperfect model of holiness. In short, you get a warped picture of your own Godliness.

The context bears out the situation at hand. Previously in the same chapter, Paul wrote that the Corinthians were “looking at things as they were outwardly” (v.7) and accused Paul’s letters of being “weighty and strong” but his actual presence as “unimpressive and…speech contemptible” (v.10).

Who’s to say that these comparisons are accurate in the first place? By outward appearance, sure, Paul was probably unremarkable; tradition states that he was bald, short, had a big nose and a unibrow, with legs that bowed inwards (hey, you probably would too if you had been beaten as much as Paul had).

But spiritually, Paul was anything but feeble. His self-reported accolades earlier in the chapter prove as much (2 Cor. 10:1-6), not to mention the fact that he carried authority as an Apostle (2 Cor. 10:8).

Finally, Paul dives into the real problems: self-comparisons with other people. Whether he’s talking about Christians or preachers of the Gospel is unknown, but what is revealed is that these people were in a constant state of lateral and downward comparisons: trying to determine their own worth by looking to the successes (and failures) of other people.

Festinger would be oh so proud.

The solution? Compare yourselves with Christ, as Paul lays out in the following verses: not to pat themselves on the backs because of the successes of others (2 Cor. 10:15) and simply fulfill your duty towards God (2 Cor. 10:16; Luke 17:10). Ultimately, as Paul contends, it’s not about whether you, I, or Brother BackPew thinks we’re doing a good job, but what God thinks about our work (2 Cor. 10:18).

So, Why Should We Stop Comparing Ourselves to Each Other?

All of this article so far (all 1,318 words of it), has been written to make one singular point: stop comparing yourself to other people. Period. Done. No more.

But in case you need a few more reasons, try these on for size:

Comparing Yourself to Other People is Idolatrous

Think about what happens every time you open up social media. You scroll and scroll (and scroll and scroll) and all you see are the “greatest hits” of everyone else’s life. People are not going to post their most unflattering moments for the world to see (generally speaking), they’re going to post the things that make themselves look good. It’s just part of being human.

You know what happens next: immediately you begin to analyze your own life in comparison. Am I that handsome? Am I that successful? Am I that funny? Am I     Fill in the blank    .   ?

You begin to envy their life, especially those things that you hate most about yourself. Having a bad hair day? Your eyes instinctively go to people who look fabulous. Having a rough financial time? Hey look, someone just bought a new car!

Isaiah 2:22 could be written about any of us during those times: “Stop regarding man, whose breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?”

He shouldn’t; God should.

The more time we spend emulating other people’s lives is less time we can spend making our own better. The average American spends 40 minutes a day, every day (!!!) just on Facebook. Conversely, leadership guru Jim Catchart claims that if you spend an hour every day studying a chosen field, you’ll become a national expert in that field in five years or less.

Unfortunately, what we have today are a lot of professional cyberstalkers with low self-esteem.

Comparing Yourself to Other People is an Impossible Dream to Fulfill

Everyone in the world starts at a different starting line with their own obstacles to overcome and advantages to kickstart them on their path. A poor orphan from Botswana does not have nearly the resources that a kid from the Hamptons does – that’s just life.

Moreover, the standards that we use in measuring ourselves against others are completely arbitrary anyways. If beauty truly is “in the eye of the beholder,” then who’s to say you’re prettier than I am (even if you probably are)?

The same goes for wealth, status, and every other standard we seem to idolize. When someone becomes a millionaire, they want to become a billionaire. When they become a billionaire, they want to become Jeff Bezos. As an old friend used to say, “There will always be someone stronger, wealthier, and better-looking than you.”

In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-29), each one was judged based on what he was given, not on what he did not have (2 Cor. 8:12). While you’re out there bemoaning all the things you don’t have, someone is watching you wishing they had a tenth of your blessings.

Comparing Yourself to Others is Flawed

As is the case with social media, anytime you get a glimpse of other people’s life, you’re only seeing a sliver of the whole picture. You’re seeing the results of their life, not the effort that went into attaining it. By the same token, you also have no idea of the heartache that rests within their soul.

That person you see everyday with the brand new outfit (must be nice!) may be without a husband 80% of the time because he’s always away on business trips. That coworker who just got promoted over you may have just discovered the previous day that his wife is cheating on him. Or that neighbor down the street with the Lamborghini in the garage may be trying to retain the last shred of their image before they file for bankruptcy.

This is why the admonition in Galatians 6:4-5 is so powerful: “Each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to others. For each one will bear his own load.”

You don’t know what I’ve done to get where I’m at; conversely, you don’t know the battles I face everyday. The same is true from me to you. But what I do know is that I have an obligation to God to do the most with what I have. Case closed.

Consider the difference between Noah and Peter. Peter preached a sermon on the day of Pentecost that resulted in 3,000 people putting on Christ in baptism (Acts 2:41). Noah preached for 100 years and the only people that got on the boat was his family, and we’re not even sure they really wanted to be there (2 Peter 2:5).

Comparing Yourself to Others is Self-Destructive

Many moons ago, I decided to take up jogging. I had just left college and put on the requisite “Post-graduation 38” and needed to drop it before I had to start investing in parachute pants.

I had never really been a runner, so the farthest I had ever run in my life was five minutes, which I had to do as part of my 7th grade fitness test.

After a few weeks of work, I hit the five-minute mark. After a few more weeks, I was up to ten minutes. A month after that, I ran my first 5k.

Imagine my elation as I crossed the finish line and looked up to see my time and then unconsciously looked at the leaderboards to see where I ranked. My score was close to the bottom at around 42 minutes (but not AT the bottom!), while the first place guy person strolled through at approximately 18 minutes.

Talk about a gut-check.

But what should I have been focusing on: the fact that I came in near the bottom of the leaderboard at my first 5k or that I had actually finished a 5k? I think you know the answer to that.

When we compare ourselves to others that are substantially better than us, one of two things will happen (according to Festinger): we’ll either up our game or lay down and die. Hopefully you choose the former, but far too many times we choose the latter.

One thing Paul the Apostle hardly ever talks about is his past; his eyes are always to the future, as they should be. In Philippians 3:13, he says “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.” When you look at the first five verses of Philippians 3, you see exactly what “lies behind”: Hebrew of Hebrews, blameless in the law, tribe of Benjamin, and a Pharisee.

All of that he left behind in order to press forward towards Christ.

What are your priorities in life? Are you focused on what actually matters or what you think matters? Others may be rich, but they rich in faith? Others may be popular, but are they friends of God?

Five Steps to Stop the Comparisons

We couldn’t finish an article like this out without some practical steps on how to improve, so here you go:

  1. Limit your exposure to “groupthink” situation such as social media, tv, magazines, etc. Excessive focus on other people’s lives means less focus on God.
  2. Be wary of arbitrary comparisons: height/weight, money, beauty, etc. What is appealing to you may not be appealing to others. Embrace imperfection, use it as fuel and appreciate life as it is.
  3. Be honest with yourself and know when you’re setting high standards for yourself and when you’re acting as a perfectionist.
  4. Consider how important your own contribution is to the world. Don’t forget that you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) and that God has set you in the body just as you were (1 Cor. 12:11). You owe it to the world to deliver on that promise.
  5. Remember this is only the beginning. Harland David Sanders founded KFC when he was 62 years old and sold it when he was 73. Today, there are 18,875 restaurants worldwide serving his original recipe for fried chicken (what a time to be alive).

Finally, listen to the words of Peter in Galatians 1:10: “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.”

Which one are you trying to serve?

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