Confidence Myths De-bunked #3: Comparisons are bad for your self-esteem

What’s the myth

Comparisons are bad for your self-esteem and need to be avoided. Constantly looking over at the other side of the fence, where the grass appears to be greener, makes you envious, bitter and unappreciative of your own accomplishments.

Why it’s not quite true

Comparisons are a complex matter.

While on one hand, it’s true that parallels to others can, in some situations, make us feel worse about ourselves, they may also serve as a powerful motivator.

The Social Comparison Theory was introduced by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 and quickly became popular as it explained a great deal about why we measure up against others and why this often makes us feel like a failure.

The greatest revelation of the theory is that separates comparisons to upward (when we fare against those that are better off than us) and downward (against those who are worse off). It’s not hard to guess that the former kind is a major contributor to our feeling unhappy with our lives, while the latter has the opposite effect.

And of course, it’s not a random process either. We don’t assess ourselves just against anyone or any attribute. We compare to those who we perceive similar to us—in the occupation, the character traits or the qualifications we consider relevant to our self-image.

Upward comparisons, the theory tells us, serve as a motivational booster. This clicks nicely with the notion of self-improvement and the purely human drive to become the best version we can possibly be.

Say you want to become a famous public speaker and a coach. How do you go about this? First, you must identify the people in the industry which are the best performers—for instance, Tony Robbins. Then you must study what he does and how he does it.

But the most important question here really is: how do you know whether you are a good or a bad public speaker in the first place? Simple—by comparing to relevant others or to the experts.

Studies support this. For example, cancer patients are often encouraged to “think positively” by comparing to those who are less fortunate than themselves. [1] But research has discovered that they often do the opposite—that is, measure up against those who are healthy. Not to feel bad about their own situation, but as an inspiration to get better.

The same situation is with people who are on a diet. They were found to keep pictures of thin people on their fridges—as a stimulus to not give up and to eat healthy.

Simply put, when we compare ourselves against the less fortunate, we may feel better about ourselves, but when we look up to those who we respect and are above us, we feel fired up to improve ourselves.

What to do instead

The idea is not that we shouldn’t compare to others. We are being advised by almost every article on enhancing self-esteem that we must stop evaluating our worth based on what we have or don’t relative to our friends, family members, or even people we admire and want to reach their level—financially, career-wise, respect-wise, on based on appearances.

But how do you actually go about it?

Have you tried to stop comparing? —I have. It’s impossible.

Even if you try really really hard, your sub-consciousness will often betray you. It’s all spontaneous and frequently done even without your consent. You just do it.

To benefit, then, from comparing, you must carefully choose the right people to compare to. For example, even if you have a job you don’t like at the moment, you are not doing great financially or are single, don’t compare against your friends that have all those things you don’t, and feel sorry for yourself. 

You won’t have much self-respect, nor self-esteem if you get caught in the web of “why-others-have (or are)-more” way of thinking. It’s a confidence crusher.

If you have dreams to leave your job and become more, don’t assess yourself against the people in your current environment. Rather—look up to the level you want to reach, find the people you want to be like, and see how they’ve done it.

That it, look vertically, not horizontally when you compare.

The other advantage of comparisons is that they help us build self-knowledge. Again, how can we identify the areas we are good or bad at if we don’t assess ourselves against others?

For instance, how would you know if you are a math whizz? Is the fact that you can solve every problem in your math textbook a good indicator of this? Judging by only this one isolated detail—yes, you may be exceptional, the next Einstein perhaps.

But what if you learn that 80% of the other students in your class can also solve all problems in the book? Then things appear in a different light, right?

Instead of feeling sorry and disappointed with yourself that you are not quite the genius you thought you were, use it as an incentive to improve—put in more hours solving problems, buy math books that are more challenging, sign up for a math club. Be driven to prove to yourself that you can be more.

Therefore, comparisons are often needed— to identify our strengths and areas which we want to work on improving.


In the end, if used properly, measuring up against the Joneses can be beneficial. It can provide an inspirational nudge to not give up—to keep going, to become better.

It can enhance our confidence too, simply because of the investment and effort we’ve put in ourselves and our goals.

The tiny caveat, though, is that it can only work well if we choose the right kind of Joneses to fare against. And we must always firstly evaluate our worth based on our own trajectory, the path we’ve walked and the obstacles we’ve overcome.

Because no matter how much we admire our role models, not everyone has an equal start in life and this is why it takes one person twice as much time and effort to get to the same level as another.

And finally, beware of the green grass fallacy. The sun may not always warmer on the other side of the fence, even if it looks this way from far away. It may just be an illusion.

~ Evelyn ~

[1] Wood, J. V.; Taylor, S. E.; Lichtman, R. R. (1985). “Social comparison in adjustment to breast cancer”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 49 (5): 1169–1183. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.49.5.1169.

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