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When Comparing Yourself to Others is a Good Thing

This is not going to be another article telling you to love yourself for you who you are.

…Let me explain. I am a huge advocator of that message. However, I think it has been misguidedly repeated across opinion articles and social media posts without including some important lessons to consider in tandem.

It is quite often that we hear about the dangers of comparing yourself to others and the importance of self-love. In an attempt to play devil’s advocate, I want to push back on that message a bit and examine the important balance of self-love with its counterpart, social comparison.

In my social psychology class, I recently learned of something called Social Comparison Theory. I know that sounds boring, but stick with me. The basic idea of this theory is quite simple: that we compare ourselves to others in order to evaluate our own abilities and opinions. What’s more important here are the two types of social comparison: upward and downward. Again, it’s a simple concept: according to upward social comparison, we compare ourselves to those who are ‘better’ than us, and according to downward social comparison, we compare ourselves to those who are ‘worse’ than us.

So, why do we use each type of comparison? When we compare ourselves to those who are ‘better’ than us, we often do it out of a desire to learn from them and improve. When we compare ourselves to those who are ‘worse’ than us, we do it out of a desire to boost our self-esteem.

The messages of self-love that we so often see are typically applied to the problem of comparison between women about their physical appearance. I agree that this is fundamentally problematic. The emphasis on beauty as a highly valued trait is much too apparent; no woman should feel that the worth of her appearance outweighs the worth of her intelligence, kindness, and fortitude.

However, my concern with the endless repeating of this message emerges when this concept carries over to other aspects of life, such as academic or work life. Telling women that they should not compare themselves to those who are ‘better’ than them is a helpful point in regard to body shaming, but when the message becomes ingrained, we begin to dip into the dangerous territory that we should not compare ourselves to anyone about anything, ever (think: everybody gets a 1st place medal).  

What do we lose when we decide that we are perfect in every aspect, and that comparing ourselves to others means that we’re engaging in a destructive frenzy of self-hate? We lose the ability to recognize our weaknesses and discover how to improve our abilities and shape those weaknesses into strengths. Why bother improving if you’re already perfect just the way you are?

Everyone should love themselves and accept themselves no matter what, but it’s imperative not to let this love keep you from striving toward higher and higher goals. If somebody gets a better score on an exam than you, it is going to be hard to avoid the feelings of disappointment. Push past it. Ask yourself, why did they do better? What did they do differently than me? What can I learn from this?

In my opinion, self-love is not about blind and complacent acceptance of your weaknesses. It’s about an acknowledgement of those weaknesses, a love for yourself regardless of those weaknesses, and a resilience to grow and learn from those weaknesses.

There will likely always be somebody in the room who is smarter, funnier, cooler, or more talented than you. Find those people — and ask them how they got there.



Photo courtesy of The New York Times. 



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