10 Steps to Self Esteem: Step 5 - Stop comparing yourself with others

Welcome to the fifth step of your 10 steps to self esteem.

ACTION POINT! Remember to fill in your Progress Checker before you start.

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I don’t want to be compared to Britney, Ashlee, Hilary or Lindsay. I want to be compared to me!

Avril Lavigne, Canadian singer songwriter

In the last step we were focusing on how feeling inferior is an emotionally driven phenomenon that stems from unconscious assumptions of hierarchy rather than connection.

We saw how it’s much more effective to live by appreciating differences between people rather than always looking at our relationships in terms of who’s better or worse. The point is that people can be ‘better’ in some ways, or at one thing, without being better in any general sense.

I think the modern hyper-connected world has made us all more prone than ever to chronically comparing ourselves with others.

But where do all these comparisons come from? Why does low self esteem produce such frenzied ‘comparanoia’ with other people?

We live in an up/down world

Picking up on a theme from Step 4, we can see that status is important to us. Whether you’re ‘high’ up in the order of things or ‘lower’ down affects, or should I say can affect, how you feel about yourself. And how you feel about yourself can impact your wholelife.

Status is implied in the sort of language we use every day. We talk of someone getting a better job or gaining wealth and status as ‘going up in the world’. We might worry that now they will ‘look down on us’. When we admire someone, we put them ‘up on a pedestal’ and we ‘look up’ to them.

Someone might be higher up than us at work, or above us. If we have low self esteem we might be said to be down on ourselves.

This high/low metaphor is used continually. Again, we might describe someone as highly beautiful, or as having low intelligence.

We can feel low when we feel ourselves to be ‘low down’ in status, perhaps because we feel unappreciated, or can’t yet appreciate ourselves. This can happen, for instance, if you give up work to look after your children, or to care for someone who is ill or disabled. Even if you wanted to do it, you can feel somehow ‘demoted’, as if what you are doing is not as important, or not valued by others.

The way we live now means we are much more likely to compare ourselves to all kinds of people, many of whom we’ll never meet.

And that can be another difficulty.

Movie stars are your neighbours

A hundred or two hundred years ago, for better or worse, we ‘knew our place’ much more than we do now. We might be from farming stock, or a line of shop keepers, but, even though we might have admired or envied the rich folks in the big country house, we wouldn’t have compared ourselves to them, because the differences between us were so well established and largely accepted.

This all changed as we all became more socially mobile and developed greater aspirations. Which, of course, is good in all kinds of ways, but there has been a price to pay. The sense that we ‘can have it all’ has brought with it increased dissatisfaction with what we have.

In the early 1900s we might have compared ourselves – slightly and somewhat – to others in our social class in, say, our village. In contrast, nowadays we have the whole world to compare ourselves to.

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Catwalk models, famous actors, huge celebrities, world-changing entrepreneurs – all are beamed into our homes through TV and other media. We come to feel as if we have some kind of relationship with these people. We feel as if they are ‘the same as us’ – just much, much better!

Of course, we tell ourselves that we know what these super beings are really like – but we often forget that their ‘image’ is carefully managed by armies of public relations experts.

If we are comparison prone, looking at all those rich and famous and beautiful (thanks to the airbrush) people and comparing ourselves to them is one sure fire recipe for despair. How am I ever going to match up to that?!?!

You (and all of us) need to regularly remind yourself that the world of the cosmetically-modified image-controlled celebrity is essentially an illusory realm. We all know in our heads that it’s not real, but the constant exposure we have to it can, if we’re not vigilant, have a negative drip drip effect on our self esteem.

So it really matters who we compare ourselves to.

An intelligent use of social comparison

It used to be thought that running a mile in under four minutes was not humanly possible. But when a young Dr Roger Bannister did just that in May 1954, suddenly athletes of similar standard saw that he was not that different from them, and they too made times of less than four minutes.

In the year after Bannister’s great run, hundreds of other excellent athletes joined him on the other side of that once seemingly impassable barrier. They had looked at him, seen he was like them, and changed their concept of what was now possible for themselves.

But it would have been foolish for a ninety year old man to have compared himself to these young athletes and assumed that he too could do this. Or for a three year old child.

The Bannister effect – the knowledge that something can be done translating into the ability to do it – works only for those it can work for.

When we compare ourselves to others we need to do it intelligently. If I lament the fact that I can’t speak French as fluently as some guy who spent the first twenty years of his life in Paris, I am comparing myself to the wrong person, because he has an ‘unfair’ advantage over me in that respect.

A ninety year old man might be able to run a mile (the oldest competitor to complete the London Marathon in 2012 was 101 years old!), but to determine how well he runs his mile, he can only legitimately compare himself to

  • other athletes in their eighties or nineties

  • his own previous performance. This is a healthy use of comparison.

Compare yourself to yourself

If I go to the gym and lift weights, I would quickly become demoralised if I always compared my efforts to the achievements of the top hundred strongest men who ever lifted. I might even feel a little deflated comparing my iron heaving to other gym members.

But I know I really am getting fitter and stronger by comparing my performance now against my own previous performance.

If you feel socially anxious, it’s a better strategy to compare your level of social ease not to the most relaxed and outwardly confident types but to your own social ‘performance’ through time.

Comparing yourself to yourself can be so much more effective than comparing yourself to other people. Bannister knew he had already run close to an under four minute mile. He also knew no one else had done it yet. But his comparisons were with his own performance.

Exercise • Progress check

You have five Progress Checkers on the go right now. Your Progress Checkers allow you to make beneficial use of comparison – with yourself.

Revisit – and update if necessary – your Progress Checkers now, and look carefully at the evidence they present that you are making progress.

Consider how you felt and how you acted when you started reading these blogs. See what has changed.

Identify any ‘blocks’ and commit to working specifically on those issues.

Be proud of what you are doing!

Early conditioning can lead to ‘comparanoia’

One woman I knew told me how her mother was always comparing her to other children, with comments like “That Becky at number 23 is much prettier than you, isn’t she!” and “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

Of course, it’s natural to compare ourselves to others. We can only know we are good, bad or reasonable at something in comparison to how well most people perform in these areas. I can only know I am a fast swimmer by comparing myself to other people who swim.

But if we have constantly been compared to others by someone else, and always been found wanting in comparison to those supposedly perfect specimens, we can internalise this as a pattern to live by.

This is a truly self defeating strategy.

The people we can usefully compare ourselves to are those who have freed themselves from the need to constantly compare themselves.

The pitfall of defensiveness

When we feel very emotional about something we can very easily become defensive. People who chronically compare themselves with others often feel insulted or put down by implication. For example, if someone says: “Joanne is so beautiful!” Kate might feel unduly hurt, thinking to herself: “So you’re saying that I’m ugly then!”

No insult was intended, and no one is saying you are not as beautiful or even more beautiful than Joanne, but you feel that this is what is meant, because you are so used to being negatively compared to others (or doing this yourself).

One happy ripple effect of getting control over the habit of over-comparing yourself will be that you will stop getting defensive – because you will no longer feel stung by those imagined implications.


Stop comparing yourself

Read this blog at least once a day for 7 days or until you notice at least half of the progress indicators shown below

  • you feel less inclined to think yourself better or worse than others

  • you notice that status is less important to you in how you think and feel when it comes to others

  • you are less likely to make blanket generalisations from single specific negative instances

  • you notice and challenge the tyrannical thoughts of‘comparanoia’

  • you enjoy and feel more relaxed being around all kinds of different people

Give yourself time to absorb all the material and all the ideas, and remember to go back and revisit the previous steps as you go.

In Step 6 we’re going to tackle the thorny subject of trying to please everybody. Everybody, that is, except you...


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