The Pros and Cons of Comparing Yourself to Others

Apples and orangesAfter all these years, I still find it interesting how lessons from my athlete days can pop up in other areas of life. In my competition era, for example, one of the things that helped me continually better my performance was a well-honed, disciplined inner focus. In the deep reaches of a marathon, I better be focused on myself. That doesn’t mean I never had awareness of where other people were in relation to me – although those moments happened, too. It means I couldn’t afford to spend my energy outside of myself in those grueling hours. In a game of mind over matter, you learn not to waste critical mental resources.

Focusing on others and getting diverted by comparison would’ve been one of those perilous mistakes. Your race isn’t about other people and where they are. It’s about your training, your focus, your pacing, your state of mind. Some folks can come with a plan that they’ve developed over months but get thrown off course by paying too much attention to other people’s approach. Suddenly, they’ve expended more energy than they’re used to in the beginning sections of a race, and now they’ve lost touch with their rhythm. They struggle to recalibrate their pacing. It’s disorienting and you can guess how unsuccessful. Funny how the same principle can hold in many regards when it comes to success in life – and health. Undoubtedly, there’s a time (and a place) for comparison. I’ve used it to my advantage – in many endeavors. The key, I find, is to be mindful of when you turn to comparison and what you’re looking to get from it.

There’s an important distinction to be made here, first off. Exercising or training (insert any health/life endeavor) with other people, offering mutual encouragement – that’s community. There’s legitimately something to the group dynamic in exercise. The presence and energy of other people can be a welcome distraction. They can help make light of arduous fitness tasks. They can offer support. They can share the physical and emotional journey, so to speak. Having a witness to our struggles and accomplishments is powerful.

Setting their performance or ability against your own, on the other hand – that’s comparison. The first doesn’t beget the second, but it can sometimes accompany it. The same holds for many situations, whether it’s losing weight, getting in shape, rebuilding your health, cultivating your career, growing your financial situation, pursuing creative projects, or simply designing a life trajectory. How we handle our inclinations toward community and comparison is up to us.

The Upside of Comparison

According to social comparison theory (in a nutshell), we compare ourselves to others for information gathering – as a means of expanding and/or honing our frame of reference for self-assessment. It presumably gives a reality check when objective measures aren’t present or aren’t deemed as relevant. In some cases, we also compare ourselves because we want to boost our motivation to achieve more by finding motivation in the examples “upward” comparison (e.g. someone fitter, more successful, etc.) provides. In other circumstances, we choose to indulge in so called “downward” comparison to presumably boost our self-esteem by focusing on people in worse situations than those in which we perceive ourselves to be (e.g. more overweight, less fit, less successful, etc.).

On the positive end of things, comparison can offer an “information gathering” framework. We may not realize what’s even possible without the model of other people. The example of other people can expand our sense of what we can imagine for ourselves. Maybe we never before understood the variety of approaches to getting fit or preparing all of our own meals. Maybe we never believed it was possible to work from home or balance the need for personal time with family commitment. Likewise, seeing their struggles and success can help us anticipate the stumbling blocks and appropriate solutions for our own endeavors.

Nonetheless, I’d say these examples are the more innocuous forms that fall more under the “observation” umbrella than the true comparison.

In terms of true “assessment”-focused comparison as we often think of it, the impact on our behavior can be varied but clear. As I’ve noted before, studies support the notion that we tend to use the people in our inner circles as “norms” against which we gauge our eating and even weight. Within that premise, we can feel genuinely motivated to perform better (or to be lulled into acquiescence). Research suggests, for example, that people will up their game solely based on their perception of the person exercising next to or with them. (PDF) One of our inclinations is to push ourselves – or in other cases, slouch – to match those around us. Experts believe comparing some element of ourselves can actually support self-esteem as well as encourage self-enhancement.

The Downside of Comparison

Yet, not every act of comparison emboldens us. Although research in the area of social comparison shows that we tend to compare ourselves to others who are somewhat similar rather than vastly different in ability/characteristics/other aspect up for evaluation. (PDF) Nonetheless, I believe we often look for the comparison we’re primed to seek out – whether by our own emotional insecurities or the novelty of modern media. How many of us have at some point watched the fittest people in the gym and wanted to slink away to the other side of the room? How many of us seen media photos of the super-lean and felt like giving up?

On the other hand, maybe we’ve taken a few steps to clean up our diet and not felt motivated to go much further because our choices seem so much better than the people in our families and workplaces. It’s all too easy to feel good about a few steps when almost everyone we know is still back at the starting line.

I think we need to be entirely honest – which also means mindful – about the motivation behind our comparisons. What are really looking at when we’re glancing around the gym during our rest periods? What’s really going through our heads when we head for the back row (or the front row) at a fitness class? What are we looking to see in other people? Are we information gathering – on techniques or ideas? Or are we looking for ammunition to use against ourselves to affirm rooted thinking – or for justifications to boost our egos?

There’s nothing wrong with asking legitimate questions that lead us toward productive self-assessment. How is that person pacing his/her workout? How does he/she enjoy training? How does that person exude self-confidence? The inevitable next question to these ponderings is, “Why not me?”

Why not you?

Healthy comparison should bring us back to empowerment. Marcus Aurelius presumably said, “How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself….” I’d add how much additional peace and energy to that proposal.

For every five minutes we spend comparing our abilities to another person’s, we’d do well to make sure we’re devoting an hour to assessing our own progress and doing something (anything healthy) to celebrate it.

You are your ultimate frame of reference – your own evolution. Track whatever you need to be able to measure your self-comparison. Keep you mind on your own race. Hone your own performance by understanding and following what shows you your progress.

Be honest with yourself about what offers you positive inputs for consideration (e.g. ideas) and what pushes you too far for the time being. It’s my experience that people’s confidence grows as their fitness grows and their self-investment increases. You don’t have to have it all down right out of the starting gate. Stay away from media that sends you down a negative comparison spiral. Be careful with settings that trigger the insecurity, but don’t use that as an excuse to avoid resources that would be legitimately helpful.

In the context of this honesty, you must commit to seeing yourself in a more generous light. If you’re your own worst critic, if you indulge in self-bashing, excuses or victimhood, then it’s time you owned that. Trust me, no matter what other people around you are doing, it won’t matter more than your attitude does.

Finally, lean on like-minded community, and make sure you aren’t going it alone. Again, community supports rather than compares. Isolation breeds comparison. When you feel yourself integrated with others, you feel more secure. When you’re known and supported, it’s not about comparing aspects with envy or arrogance. It’s about knowing and being known as a full, aspiring, fallible human being – the way we all endeavor our journeys, for whatever health, fitness or personal aspiration. Ground yourself in that commonality, and look to better yourself – on your own terms.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. How has comparison served or sabotaged you in the past? I’m curious to hear your feedback. Have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Comparing Yourself to Others”

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  1. IMO, nothing illustrates this better than a martial artist’s first competition. It’s like opening the door to a whole new world.

    I remember going to my first national competition and looking around going “I didn’t even know you could kick like that! Look how fast he’s moving. Look how flexible she is!” Really gave me fuel to keep pushing my own limits.

  2. Your base of comparison is important to the outcome of the comparison.

    I have pretty low and fragile self-esteem when it comes to my looks, so a comparison of looks has always led me down a path of nasty thoughts, self-sabotage of healthy endeavors, and destructive and unhealthy actions (or inaction…).

    On the other hand, I feel that I’m pretty good at lifting heavy things, so comparing myself to others in that realm has always led me to wanting to push myself AND wanting the other person to succeed.

    1. It occurred to me, while reading this post, and again while reading this comment, that comparing myself to others, especially when it comes to my looks, is one area where I have not applied some advice I read in a magazine, and I should have. It was an article in Seventeen magazine, I think, called How to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy.

      The advice, in a nutshell, was that anytime you catch yourself indulging in negative self-talk to ask yourself if you would say the same thing if to a friend in the same situation. (Because hey, you should be your own friend.) If the answer is no, then to think about what you would say to a friend and tell yourself the same thing. After a while, it gets pretty easy and you rarely have to sensor negative self-talk, because you’re routinely telling yourself what you would tell a friend. Yes, the advice takes a little work, and a little practice, but I’ve found it to be quite powerful in terms of self-esteem.

      Mind you, the advice was all about not putting yourself down for making a mistake. Now all I have to do is remember to apply it when it comes to my own physical appearance.

      1. Right! I’ve definitely heard that advice before. I’m currently working on not picking on myself in the mirror. I think I have it down to only like a few seconds of critique or poking and prodding before I yell (sometimes out loud) at myself to “STOP IT. Just STOP.”

  3. The only worthwhile comparison is with one’s self–where you were, where you are now, and where you plan to be in six months or a year. Doing anything at all is better than doing nothing, if nothing is where you started from.

    There are different levels of ability. Some people naturally have more energy, more agility, and more overall athleticism than I have. I came to terms with this years ago. I realized that If I compared myself to some of the athletes I see on TV, or even right in the neighborhood, I would be too discouraged to ever bother getting off the couch. The key for many of us is to do what we’re capable of doing without worrying that it’s inferior to what someone else is doing.

    1. Amen!! I just got through paying for a niece (with a 3-chambered heart) to take part in a spring 5k run/walk (doctor-approved, of course). All she wanted for Christmas was a chance to be “normal” like the other girls, and most of her friends were going to this 5k training camp. Now she gets to go with them. All has been cleared ahead of time medically–ambulance standing by, Mom with portable oxygen should it be needed, everybody who needs her heart info has it, medical insurance gave it an okay should something happen, and her doctor (since birth) is even going to the race to cheer her on.

      She’s not worried about being inferior–she just wants a chance to feel the wind rush by at a speed faster than a walk. She already knows she’s different. I was happy to pay for it.

      If she wasn’t already 12, I’d send her a copy of the Grok book.

      1. How about a copy of Paleo Girl? I’ve heard good things : ) what a wonderful gift to your niece — she sounds like a wonderful young lady.

        1. I was going to suggest that too. Glad someone beat me to it.

  4. I teach Psychology classes and we talk about the value in making ‘downward comparisons’. It sounds crude, but looking at others who have it way worse than yourself is a great way to be more appreciate of what you do have. When I struggle with really bad, slow run days I remind myself that at least I CAN run. When I need motivation to push myself further I look at elite athletes and how hard they train.

  5. Love the last section and the Marcus Aurelius reference. His like and mostly how he reacted, thought about, and lived his life are some of the most remarkable achievements ever.

    Modern media, consumerism has turned comparisons into a vast negative for most. Junk food vegetable oils if it was food.

    I seek out the stories of givers, dissenters, iconoclasts. Those give me something to aspire to. Not sure that is strictly the same as comparison but it is what I do.

  6. I see so many people affected by personal attributes beyond their control like height, eye color, hairline, breast size, age, etc. We can control what we ingest and how we move our bodies. As we have learned in this community, what we ingest and how we move our bodies simply makes us feel better. When we feel our best, it does not matter what anyone else thinks. I look forward to feeling better when I’m 50 than I did when I was 15.

    1. Exactly. I took up yoga 4 or 5 years ago, and people tell me all the time, “I’m just not that flexible.” My reply is “Neither was I. I’m in my mid 40’s and more flexible than I was when I was 20.” That makes most people pause a moment, but I doubt it’s enough to motivate most of them to try yoga. But one never knows. I gave yoga a try after talking with my ex-husband (who I am still friends with), who had been in a car accident recently. Doctors were puzzled by the fact that the only injury he had was a slightly pulled shoulder muscle, until one of them had enough sense to ask him what he did for exercise. When the doc found out it was yoga, he went back and told the others, who were standing around discussing it “He does yoga. That’s why he’s not hurt worse than he is.” I’ve got shoulder issues from a couple of fender benders and whip lash. Took me about six months before I gave yoga a go.

  7. You could also look at comparison through the lens of perspective and expectation management.

    Looking back on previous comparative events what was accomplished? Was it uplifting or deflating? Etc.

    A person should also ask if their expectations are realistic after drawing a comparison. Sometimes we have abilities and capabilities that others lack and vice versa.
    I believe that in matters of comparison evaluation of these two, perspective and expectations, offer uniquely insightful self knowledge.

  8. “The key, I find, is to be mindful of when you turn to comparison and what you’re looking to get from it.”

    Great post, Mark, and relevant to so many areas of life. I especially like the line quoted above, because comparison itself is neither good nor bad; it all depends on WHY you’re making the comparison, what you hope to gain from it. If you’re comparing yourself to someone else in an effort to improve on something – appearance, athletic performance, job qualifications, etc. – it is, as Mark points out, more observation and information gathering than true comparison.

    As Jacob’s martial arts example above so aptly demonstrates, you can see someone performing a skill and think, “I want to be able to do that, too!” There’s a brief moment of true comparison (“he can kick like that, but I can’t”), but the comparison turns into observation and information gathering as you watch and analyse how he kicks so you can use that information to improve your own kicks. The comparison automatically occurs because there is a shared quality between the comparer and the one being compared (i.e., they’re both martial artists and they both use kicks). We have no reason to make comparisons when no shared quality exists. If Jacob trained in judo, he wouldn’t make the initial comparison because there wouldn’t be a shared quality – there are no kicks in judo.

    On the other hand, engaging in negative comparisons for the sole purpose of finding fault with yourself is an exercise in futility and a complete waste of time.

  9. I believe that whether or not comparisons are healthy or detrimental will be determined by your attitude. I have always been a believer – “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Looking at people who had what I wanted or were doing what I aspired to do inspired me to dig deeper, work harder, and succeed.

    Conversely, if an individual has a poor attitude about life and about himself or herself, then I would suppose and upward comparison might make that person feel worse rather than better.

  10. When I make comparisons with others, whether in athletic ability, job skills, artistic talent or whatever, I think there’s a little golden nugget of opportunity there that, too often, I pass by. The comparison can become community if I go to that person and say, “Wow! You really do that well!’ or “I could learn so much from you!” or “You’re an inspiration!”. If I give the comparison back as a sincere compliment, then I feel like both of us have benefited.

    1. I completely agree! I have a twin (both girls). She was always competing with me and never able to celebrate any of my successes. I, on the other hand, was always encouraging and complimenting her. My women friends tell me how much they cherish that trait. They know I’m happy for them and not just pretending. I only compare myself to myself. Give those compliments and be sincere. They are gifts for those that have worked hard.

  11. Comparison certainly helped me early in life to see beyond my peer group to see what’s possible and raise my standards.

    Later I focused more on comparison with my results and making incremental progress versus comparing to others.

    But I’m infinitely grateful for the support of my community along the way – no man is an island 🙂

  12. I wonder if comparison is the right word. Perhaps inspiration is closer to how emotionally healthy people compare themselves. I freely incorporate ideas from others to enhance my life. But it’s not really comparing because I’m not making an sort of value judgment or keeping score. I see something that someone else is doing that looks like a good idea and I give it a try also.

    The local surfers in Santa Cruz commonly fill gallon jugs with hot water before we load the car. We wrap these in towels to keep them hot. Then when we get out we poor the hot water inside our suit from the neck. It feels amazing and immediately kills the harsh chill.

    Believe it or not, this is a recent phenomenon that started maybe ten years ago with a few surfers who started doing it. You only had to see it once to understand what a great idea it was. So the next day, you had hot water jugs. Then someone saw you, covered in steam and feeling amazing, and they had jugs the next day.

    It spread really fast and i can’t believe i surfed the previous two decades without even thinking of that solution. It was like I was eating soup with a fork my whole life and then someone showed me a spoon.

  13. I always feel so discouraged when I see other swimmers pass me in the next lane – even though I am swimming as fast as I can! Tomorrow, when I hit the pool, I am going to make an effort to focus on myself and not allow the sight of other swimmers – making it look all so easy as they race past me – get me down or question why I am even bothering.

  14. Like most girls, I spent all my teens and early twenties putting myself down because I don’t look like the girls on the silver screen. Then I realized I just don’t have the time/energy for that. I’m too busy living my life.

    1. The girls on the silver screen don’t look like that either…makeup, hair, clothing, corseting, starvation…nowadays we can add photoshop!

  15. I think comparing yourself to others has it uses. But at the end of the day you are only comparing yourself to yesterday’s self. I’m on a never ending journey to be the greatest version of myself. To do that, I need to worry about myself and not others.

  16. I like this article and I applaud the words used which were direct and specific so I signed up.