Why Do We Compare Ourselves with Others?


Good thing about suffering is that is that it’s mostly subjective experience. This morning I noticed that I am again in the present state suffering quite a lot, because of unskillful habit of comparison.

So I decided to take a moment and reflect upon this question. Quickly I decided to take Google with me and I asked the question there. So then I found Quora reply by Awdhesh Singh to this same question.

I am not surprised that I found answers online, however the particular answer put me to work some more. What I love about world and net, is that our understanding is not perfect yet. We can construct upon it, and even challenge the knowledge we have and this is exactly what I did.

I think this kind of positive constructive dialogue is way ahead. So instead of accepting wholly the original reply, I began to break it down, reflect and comment upon it.

Awdhesh begins by writing that “We have a natural desire” and contradicts this in the next sentence with “We are not born with the desire of comparison.”

In life often many things can be true at the same time. I considered here the possibility as well. However, after reading through it several times and reflecting these statements to all my previous knowledge, I would argue that the first statement is wrong. We do not have natural desire to compare, instead we have a habitual desire like he mentions in the second paragraph. Mostly my argument would be founded to I’ve learned in the Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habits and Gretchen Ruben’s books.

In third paragraph he mentions a brilliant keyword “believing.”

“However, slowly we were told that we must be better than others. This starts happening since a child goes to the school. You are constantly told to get the top rank in the class or stand among the top. If you play a game, you must play to win and be the best player. If you get a lower rank, you are shamed and even humiliated. Gradually, we start believing that in order to be happy and make others happy, we must be better than others. You must work harder to be better than others by any means.”

This was a breakthrough for me personally, because I am fascinated by habit and belief formation. As I mentioned earlier the Power of Habits book, that habits have three elements: cue, routine and reward.

When I began to reflect this question “Why do we compare ourselves with others?” in the habit context, I see that these three elements are in place:

  • Cue, for example work place results or in games the scoreboard. In life we have all kinds of scoreboards as well such as status symbols, clothes etc. All of these are triggers for the habit routine.
  • Routine, “how well others are doing vs. I am…”. Personally I noticed that the routine itself is deeply rooted in our identity and memory, what we have done, who we are now, who we are striving to be…
  • Reward: at simplest forms it is the feeling of momentarily gratification of being better. However when I started to probe deeper I noticed that for me it is linked with a belief of being worthy as well. Being good, means being loved, means attention is the currency of love. Belief that the better we are, the more we are loved.

From here we get to the belief levels: beliefs what we focus the most are the strongest. I.e. this belief that the better we the more love we deserve is not necessarily the best belief to hold. In the end, we want to be loved, we want attention. Surely at the top we get attention, however what kind of attention it is we so much desire?

Also aren’t we worthy of the kind of attention already as we are? I think we are. Our own beliefs just might contradict each other and if we end up thinking that we are worthy only when we are better than everyone else, we might not end up so well.

Be careful on which kinds of beliefs you decide to focus on. The reason why we compare ourselves to each other is a result of a belief and habit. Habits cannot be simply discarded as Awdhesh mentioned, yet like Charles Duhigg points out in Power of Habit, habits can be transformed. Awdhesh suggests some positive practices such as Count Your Blessings, Learn from Others, Respect Good Qualities which are actions in the right directions.

However, personally I do not feel like these are merely enough. I notice that the process needs to begin much earlier by being mindful of cue-routine-reward situations and the beliefs we operate on. Then we need to start working towards transforming the unwanted patterns into more healthy and helpful ones.

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