Dr. Lisa Finlay
Director of International Services, Headington Institute, 2016.
A number of studies have shown that, when people compare themselves to those who are (or appear to be) better off than they are, they feel worse about their own circumstances. Because of this, therapists are often in the business of encouraging people to stop comparing themselves!
There are two common threads of wisdom in this advice. The first is the fact that the world is a big place, so you will always be able to find someone who is better at something than you are. Better to give up comparisons altogether than to constantly feel less-than. The second is the fact that comparisons that we make to others are usually unfair by design, because we tend to compare our messy insides to others’ polished outsides. We assume that others are happier or more confident than they are, because we can’t see all of those private insecurities that we are so familiar with in ourselves.
I think both of these threads of wisdom have been helpful for me personally in learning to notice when I am comparing myself to others in an unproductive way. But the most instructive lesson for me in this occurred while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique.
I was placed in a town with another volunteer, Akisha. Because the town had almost no visitors from the United States, the community readily paired us together. Now, by almost any American standard, Akisha and I were nothing alike. We grew up in different regions of the country, our family backgrounds were different, and we definitely didn’t look anything alike. We also made an effort to have some independence in our town—we had different routines and spent time with different friends. That didn’t stop many in the community from comparing us, however. The comparisons were made overtly, to our faces. Unfortunately for me, Akisha was practically fluent in Portuguese when we arrived, whereas I took several months to become conversational. I vividly remember being referred to as “the stupid one” for the first several months we were there. Sometimes this comparison was inferred: I would go to the market, and the women behind the vegetable stands would chime, “Where is the smart one today?”
This was frustrating. I was an English teacher there, so “the stupid one” label was a little worrisome. But more than this, I felt profoundly misunderstood. I was talking to Akisha about this one night, focusing on the inaccuracy of the label. What she said in response stuck with me. She agreed that the label was reductive, as all labels are, but she said the real problem was that we were being compared to one another, rather than seen for who we were on our own terms. She said that to compare two people this way was an insult to God.
This idea struck a chord with me because it went so much deeper than the lines about comparisons I had heard before. Whether you believe that a person’s uniqueness is created by the hands of God, by genetic programming, or some combination of the above, there is a sense of the miraculous in terms of how distinct we all are. Wishing we were a little more like this person or that person has a way of negating some of the ways that we are uniquely wired, foibles and all.
Thankfully, I got better at Portuguese over time, and our Mozambican community got better at not comparing Akisha and I to one another. But the real challenge is when we must give up the comparisons ourselves. It is so easy to notice what others have that we don’t, and these quick judgments can become like a mental bad habit. For me, thinking about comparisons as a form of ingratitude helps me look for more truthful lenses.