Your road to self-empowerment

The Toxicity of Comparison and Why You Should Meet Your Heroes

April 4, 2021.Merijn Duchatteau

The toxicity of comparison and why you should meet your heroes

Not too long ago I got a chance to hear an idol of mine speak at a webinar. This person had given me a perspective on happiness that was a catalyst in my self-development journey. One of his books inspired me immensely, in which he talked about deep philosophical and spiritual practices in relation to happiness which allowed me to place pretty much anything that happened in life into a positive context. It felt like magic. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t wait to meet him. I was hyped.

So I joined the webinar…and sucked. The depth of wisdom that had once touched the core of my soul through his book was non-existent in his speech. When he elaborated on the ideas in his book, I found myself doubting his expertise. He didn’t really seem convinced about his own methods and couldn’t answer a lot of questions. Much of his advice in the webinar was shallow and most of it came down to “quit whining about your situation and just be happy, because other people have it way worse”.

Not very inspiring or helpful huh? We all know someone has it worse, but the entire issue of happiness is that it’s relative to our own experiences and interpretations. When we fall as a toddler we start crying our hearts out because it’s quite literally the worst thing we’ve experienced up until that point. As you grow older you don’t give a shit if you trip, while having to balance work, your partner, your friends and personal time may send you down a spiral.

Point being: at various times in our lives, similar occurrences can have varying degrees of impact on us. Remembering that other people have it worse could help some people a little, but it sure as hell wasn’t the magic pill that I had once swallowed when reading his book. And just like that, one of my personal idols got downgraded to someone that didn’t seem to really know what he was talking about.

Why this rant about one of my ex-heroes? Well firstly, I just don’t like the guy anymore and felt like venting. More importantly, it links to our topic of today: happiness and how this is affected by us thinking we know what other people are thinking and doing.


Shit. That guy is so far ahead of me…

In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger talked about the ‘social comparison theory’, stating that humans have an innate tendency to compare themselves to others – mostly their peer group – in order to assess how well they’re doing personally. Festinger distinguished two forms of comparison: “upwards” comparison, where you compare yourself with people you assume are better than you in a certain way, and “downwards” comparison, where you compare yourself with people you assume are worse than you. Both types of comparisons are a downright recipe for disaster when it comes to happiness.

The dangers of upward comparison

Identifying a role model can be a very effective way to improve ourselves. We learn well when observing others. This is why ‘social modeling’ (i.e. ‘show, don’t tell’) is often taught as a very effective tool to leaders to help their employees grow and improve. However, in practice our upward comparisons often aren’t used for improving ourselves. They’re used to (negatively) assess our own value. By looking up to others we are easily reminded of how far behind we are, which often makes us feel like shit.

There are a few things to realize with regard to this concept. Firstly, due to our incredible technology we are able to compare ourselves to whoever we want at a moment’s notice. Instead of comparing ourselves to someone that’s similar in age, background and strengths, we are easily seduced to compare ourselves to Kim Kardashian or Brad Pitt. We stalk their Instagram, see their lives and then we hate ourselves for not being as successful or attractive. These people are in the top percentile success-wise and have had opportunities that very little people have, which makes this an unfair comparison to begin with which is bound to lead to disappointment.

Following this, we must realize that the material we use to compare ourselves is a highlight reel. The shit people post on Instagram, Facebook or TikTok is a brand. Their face is filtered. Their mood is filtered. Their surroundings are filtered. It’s not the first picture they took that is posted online. It’s the tenth picture. Twentieth picture. Or maybe we can even triple that number. It’s not the picture that shows off their weaknesses. It’s the picture that shows off their strengths. You don’t get to see when they screw up, because why the hell would they post that to Instagram?


Therefore, the standard you are comparing yourself to is not a realistic reflection of how the person is feeling, what they are doing and what their weaknesses are. It’s a standard that’s unattainable and therefore sets you up to be unhappy. Remember the story in the intro? These people that you are making out to be your idols get home at the end of the day, just like you. They kick their shoes off, grab a beer and watch some reality show to wind down. They get annoyed at traffic. They boil their eggs too long and get annoyed and snark at people. They’re not perfect and you have absolutely no idea how they truly feel or who they are on the inside. Despite this, we are still comparing ourselves to them. Our weaknesses to their strengths. Our lowest moments to their highest ones. Our chapter 1 to their chapter 20.

Comedian Robin Williams was thought to be extremely happy and joyful, but eventually killed himself due to depression. You have no idea how they feel, what they did to get where they are and how realistic this image is. Upwards comparison is rarely functioning, so don’t bother with the comparing. Everyone has their demons, you just rarely get to see them.


The dangers of downward comparison

Ok. So we’re quitting the upward comparisons. Great. But what about looking down on others? Feels pretty good right? The colleague that screwed up his assignment when you absolutely aced it? You’re better than them. And it feels great.

Downward comparison is a great way to feel better about yourself quickly. This is the bread and butter of many narcissists. They very selectively choose the topic and the person they compare themselves to in order to forge a permanent high – often leading to a superiority complex.

Downward comparison is also very commonly used as a defensive mechanism. Insecure people often engage in gossiping or judgement of others in order to feel better about themselves, masking their insecurities and weaknesses instead of working on accepting or improving them.

While this method can make you feel good in the short-term, it’s not actually addressing the underlying problems of your insecurities or unhappiness, nor is it a healthy way to generate positive feelings. Firstly, you looking down on others will be noticeable to other people. You’ll start acting like an entitled PoS, which will ruin your social interactions.


Secondly, you’re basing your self-worth based on external, variable factors. Confidence and happiness should always come from within instead of relying on external developments. True happiness and confidence are best generated and maintained when originating from self-love, self-acceptance and full authenticity which you openly share with others in acceptance and mutual appreciation. Confidence and happiness which relies on feeling better than others simply highlights that you need validation from other people in order to feel good about yourself. This is not true confidence or happiness. It is not true freedom. And it is not stable or sustainable.

No person living from true confidence, happiness and freedom has the need to actively remind themselves they are better than others by judging or looking down on people. True happiness basks in acceptance, love and mutual appreciation. Remember this for yourself as well as for other people who may look down on you – because when someone is shitting on you, it most likely stems from their own insecurities. Don’t take it personally.

So…no comparing at all?

Our goal is to find happiness as well as inspiration on self-improvement without feeling better or worse about ourselves in an unhealthy way. Keeping this in mind, it is very helpful to identify a social model. Someone you identify with that may be a bit further along than yourself so you can get inspired on what to improve on.

However, when it comes to progress and outcomes, you should only ever compare yourself to you. Comparing yourself to others positively or negatively will not help you in the long run and is not a fair comparison for the reasons mentioned above. When comparing yourself to yourself, make sure to assess a realistic time period. It is not realistic to progress every single day as you will have ups and downs. What’s more helpful is to reflect on yourself and your growth every week or every month to see if you’re on the right track. This prevents you from feeling like shit because someone else is doing so much better than you, but still gives you a kick in the ass when you need it.

Your core feeling in this context should always be acceptance. Progression is necessary for us to feel happy and confident, however, the drive for this must not come from a place of self-judgment but rather from a place of inspiration and playful improvement. If you accept yourself for who you are at your core, you won’t really give a shit what others are doing and you won’t feel terrible if you don’t progress as quickly as others. All that matters is you do your best every day.

Not idolizing our heroes nor looking down on others allows us to let go of the unhealthy need for validation of others as well as excessive self-judgment. As a result, we are able to live in freedom while still improving ourselves at our own pace, causing us to become our own hero.