Social Comparison: How Do I Stack Up?
Living in San Francisco in 2016 is enough to make the most well-adjusted individual grapple with inadequacy. If you look around, you are likely to see many highly educated, successful, productive and intelligent people.
These folks seem to have it all: money, fitness and health, attractiveness, successful careers, loving relationships, well-behaved children, and time to travel.
Even if you don’t want to, you may find yourself comparing your own situation to that of others. Social comparison theory makes a compelling argument for why people feel the need to measure themselves up against their peers.
The need to compare oneself to others is driven by the desire to understand where we fit in the world.
We do this all the time. If you are a parent, how often do you find yourself looking at other parents and attributing a child’s positive traits with good parenting and any problematic child behavior to bad parenting? You measure yourself and your child’s behavior with your peers to understand what good parenting is. Or perhaps you work in a start-up and wonder if all your hard work will be noticed, if you’ll be promoted, and if you’ll be financially compensated for your dedication to the company if there is a buyout. After all, you hear about start-up success stories all the time, particularly in San Francisco, where the tech industry is booming and people are getting wealthy fast.
It seems particularly damaging to apply social comparisons to yourself when living in a city with a large demographic of overachievers. As a result, you may then see yourself as not stacking up in more ways than one.
Of course, you will never know the inside workings of a child or another parent or any other person, what goes on in the privacy of his or her own home, and what anyone perceives as his or her own shortcomings. You are left making a value judgment on what you see, which may or may not be in line with their reality.
Comparisons are natural and sometimes helpful, but if you don’t keep in mind that you are seeing a snapshot of someone’s life in one moment in time, you may likely attribute positive qualities and happiness to people when they themselves may not view their lives the same way. Maybe sometimes reality is in the eye of the beholder.
A presenter at a conference I attended once said that it is one of our primary developmental tasks to stop comparing ourselves to others and to judge ourselves based on our own capabilities and values. There will always be someone richer, smarter, and better looking than we are. We can only assess our potential and strive to meet goals in ways that are unique to who we are.
You decide. Do you look within or do you determine your self-worth based on external factors? It’s not easy being a member of a high achieving and privileged San Franciscan population but I can honestly say, having to compare myself with some of the “best” has helped me see and value MY best. I now know what is most important to me and focus on what I do have and what I can achieve instead of what I may never have or may never achieve. So while social comparison theory explains the inclination to compare, I would rather challenge the construct and influence my own reality. Next time you see the mom who has it all together, or the super fit young CEO, take a moment to remember what your goals and values are, what you see as your unique attributes, and how you can embrace your life to the fullest.