Comparison is good and bad
Many of my younger clients lament that they are not as thin, smart, or popular as others. In spite of the fact that comparing themselves with others makes them miserable, they find it hard to stop. They are not alone. Comparing ourselves to others is innate to human beings.1 Comparison can be helpful, but more often than not, as in the case of my younger clients, it can make us unhappy and lead to sin. Below, I consider some benefits of comparison and then discuss how to deal with the negatives.
According to social comparison theory, the first purpose of comparing ourselves with others is to estimate “the abilities of ourselves and others [which) is key for survival, guiding decisions about which social groups to join and whether to attack or retreat.”2 Adolescents are evaluating where they fit into society, and so it is understandable why they are hit so hard by this issue. But everyone compares themselves.
A second purpose for comparison is “that [it] provides motivation to improve.”3 In comparing, “humans have a tendency to compare themselves to others that have achieved more, perhaps in an effort to find out more about what is possible.”4 This type of comparison abounds in sports—any athlete will tell you that competition spurs them to do their best.
Third, comparison can teach us what we value and highlight our priorities.
However, “the problem with these comparisons is that they are usually triggered when people find that they already lack something.”5 Examples of things that people lack include a better car, house, spouse, life. This is called upward social comparison. It occurs when we want what someone else has, and rarely produces positive results.6
Comparison is the thief of joy —Theodore Roosevelt
The Bible abounds with such comparisons: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, etc. All are examples of people who compared themselves with others, which led them to becoming miserable, angry, resentful, and jealous. Some even committed murder.
But there is a way to keep comparison from leading to sinful results. The solution can be seen in the life of John the Baptist.
Before Jesus started his ministry, John was the rabbi everyone flocked to. But then Jesus started his ministry. On hearing of Jesus’ popularity, John could have reacted with envy. Instead, he responded in a way that is helpful for us today. John said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” John, in humility before God, was able to react positively rather than negatively to what could have been a very disappointing situation. Secular counseling calls this “removing your ego” from a situation, whereas the Christian term is “humility.” Comparison tempered by humility gives us a proper view of ourselves in relationship to others, which can keep us from falling into sin.
People inevitably compare themselves with others. At times, it can be helpful, but comparison can lead to unhappiness and sin. The Bible shows us how a humble attitude can keep us from becoming miserable, or much worse, leading us into sin. JH
1. Kendra Cherry, “What is social comparison theory?” May 10, 2016, www.verywell.com/what-is-the-social-comparison-process-2795872
2. Cell Press. “People estimate their own abilities based on others’ performance.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 July 2016. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160720122830.htm
3. Peter Julian, “Why people compare themselves to others?” Accessed Feb 24, 2017, www.brainspeak.com/people-compare-others/
5. M.Farouk Radwan, “Self Confidence and Comparing Yourself to Others” Accessed Feb. 24, 2017, https://www.2knowmyself.com/self_confidence/Building_self_confidence/comparing_yourself_to_others
6. Cherry, “What is social comparison theory?”
Eileen Nielsen and her husband live in Tokyo. Eileen is the Member Care Facilitator for TEAM and has a private counseling ministry.