Comparison is not inherently bad, and frankly, we all do it. Yet there are times when comparison can be harmful, particularly if you’ve developed the habit of constantly comparing yourself to others instead of trusting yourself.
In this article, we discuss when comparing yourself to others is healthy versus when it’s unhealthy, the roots of desire to compare yourself with others, five ways comparing yourself to others hurts you, and steps you can time right now to break your comparitivitis habit.
What does “comparison is the thief of joy” mean?
“Comparison is the thief of joy” means that comparing yourself with others will likely reduce the joy you experience in life. Comparison can lead to excessive self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy.
When you’re stuck in comparison mode, you may create unrealistic expectations for yourself, fail, and then feel demoralized because you weren’t as “good as others.” For example, many beginners like to compare themselves with others. That’s fine for inspiration, but if you expect that you’re going to paint like Claude Monet or play the cello like Yo-Yo Ma after only a few months or years, you’re in for a bitter disappointment.
Origin of the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy”
The exact phrase “comparison is the thief of joy” is not found in Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches or writings. Experts now suggest that the famous “quote” attributed to the former president paraphrases Roosevelt’s overall thoughts on the negative consequences of comparison.
Roosevelt wrote extensively about the importance of self-reliance, perseverance, and the dangers of self-pity and envy. He also wrote at length on the importance of focusing on your own progress rather than being distracted by what others are doing. Roosevelt believed that constantly comparing yourself to others prevents you from focusing on your goals and, more importantly, the direction you are headed in life.
When is comparison healthy, and when is it unhealthy?
Personal growth expert Wayne Dyer liked to say he didn’t compare himself with anyone else; he only compared his life now to where he used to be. He advised that if you’re a better version of yourself today than yesterday, you’ve grown. If you’ve not succeeded yet, you still have the opportunity to make decisions now that will help you succeed going forward.
Comparison can be healthy or can be a sure route to misery. It’s essential to understand the difference between healthy (and accurate) comparisons and unhealthy comparisons is essential.
Comparison is healthy when…
Comparing yourself to others is beneficial when it’s used as an inspirational tool for self-improvement. For example, if you see someone who has achieved something you want to accomplish, taking a closer look at their journey from beginner to where they are now will likely provide valuable lessons. Likewise, you can avoid a lot of pain by observing others’ bad behaviors and habits and choosing healthier habits for yourself.
Comparison is unhealthy when…
Comparison is harmful when you use it to measure your intrinsic worth and value. Comparing yourself to others in an attempt to feel better about yourself can send your self-esteem plummeting.
When you compare yourself to others to feel good about yourself or superior to others, you may not end up happier in the long run. You may develop a sense of superiority that distances you from others. Or, you may develop a false sense of security, assuming you’re further ahead than you actually are. Worse, you may have compared apples to kumquats and not have a clear picture of where you stand after all.
What is the root of comparison?
People compare themselves with others for various reasons, including assessing their abilities, gaining information about how to improve and get motivated or inspired. The desire to compare your actions with others comes from instinct.
Psychologist Leon Festinger introduced Social Comparison Theory (SPT) back in 1954. In the SPT model (shown below), a comparison may result in a positive or negative or negative finding, depending on one’s outlook and whether the comparison is favorable (upward comparison) or unfavorable (downward comparison).
Comparing yourself to others, when done as an obsessive habit—or with unrealistic expectations—can lead to feelings of frustration, stress, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, and self-pity.
Below are a few factors often at the root of an unhealthy comparison habit, including low self-esteem, social media, pressure from others, and the fear of missing out.
People with low self-esteem may compare themselves to others to feel better about themselves. If you suffer from low self-esteem, you may believe that if you find someone who is “behind” you in progress toward a goal or achievement you want, you will feel better about yourself.
The truth is, any uplifting feeling you get from a positive comparison is temporary at best. You will always find people who are better off or worse off than you; that fact will never have a lasting positive impact on improving your sense of self-worth.
Those who suffer from low self-esteem and self-doubt will just keep going back and doing more comparisons always looking for proof they’re okay, instead of trusting that they are.
The role social media plays in luring us into the “comparison game” is nothing short of addictive. Social media makes it easy to compare ourselves to others. On social media, you can always find others who are prettier, happier, go on better vacations, have fancy possessions, great jobs and perfect families. The problem is, it’s a sheer illusion.
Exposing yourself to a steady stream of fake reality served up through a constant stream of carefully curated images and unending social posts is a trap. If you believe the hype, your life may look lousy compared to others. When you look behind the curtain—behind the filters and dazzling images being projected—you’ll find much of social media mimics an idealized fantasy, not reality.
5 ways comparing yourself to others hurts you
There are many reasons why you should break the habit of comparing yourself to others. Here are five reasons to break the comparison habit:
1. You lose sight of your strengths. When you compare yourself to others, you may focus on ways you fall short rather than your own strengths and accomplishments.
2. You set unrealistic expectations. In comparing ourselves to others, we often focus on the most favorable aspects of others’ lives while ignoring struggles and challenges. This, in turn, leads us to establish unrealistic expectations for ourselves.
3. You miss out on your blessings. When you’re always focusing on what’s lacking in your life, you miss out on the many blessings you already have.
4. You may give up on yourself. Comparing yourself with others can be incredibly discouraging, leading you to feel there’s no point in trying if others are always better or ahead of you.
5. You value others’ opinions of yourself over your own. One reason people compare themselves with others is to validate they’re on par or better than others. The constant need for validation is a slippery slope.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, do this …
The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with better habits. So, if you’ve been drawn into the habit of comparing yourself to others, here are positive tactics and mindset principles you can adopt to improve your life:
- Set personal growth goals and focus on progress
- Stop being so hard on yourself; practice self-compassion [Book recommendation: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff]
- Spend less time on social media.
- Embrace your imperfections [Book recommendation: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown]
- Improve your relationship with yourself—practice self-love every day.
- Hire a coach or mentor to help you make progress toward your goals
- Start practicing everyday mindfulness.
- Recognize and celebrate your past and future accomplishments.
- Start practicing uplifting and encouraging self-talk.
- Develop a healthy support network of friends and colleagues who will encourage you.
- Explore your strengths and focus your efforts on those. (This strengths finder test is free.)
Do not undermine your worth by comparing yourself with others
Last, but certainly not least, I can’t emphasize enough how much damage constantly comparing yourself to others can do. It undermines your sense of self-worth and the joy you experience in your life. Mark Twain didn’t think the comparison is the thief of joy; Twain said, “comparison is the death of joy.” You deserve better.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why do I compare myself with others?
You compare yourself with others to get a sense of where you stand relative to others in terms of skill, knowledge, stage of life, or achievements. You might also compare yourself to others because you’re afraid you don’t measure up—that’s when a comparison can be unhealthy. Comparisonitis is real and can be healed.
What happens when you constantly compare yourself to others?
The habit of constantly comparing yourself to others can lead to jealousy, frustration and less happiness in your life. If you want to break the habit, then you need to start valuing your own opinions more than you value others’ opinions and focus on your own goals rather than what others are doing.
Is comparing yourself insecure?
Comparing yourself to others can be a sign of insecurity. When you are comparing yourself to others to learn from them or be inspired, comparison can be very helpful. Alternatively, comparing yourself to others because you have a feeling you don’t measure up is likely a sign you need to build your sense of self-worth.
How does comparison impact mental health?
Comparison distracts you from focusing on all the great things in your life. When you do that, your mental health can suffer. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all result from a habit of always comparing yourself to others. Thankfully, you can break the comparison habit by shifting your mindset in healthy ways.