As someone who spends too much time on Facebook, I occasionally get emails from the ‘Compare People’ application, which tells me how I rank on a wide range of factors based on how my friends have compared me to their other friends.
These emails tell me in no uncertain terms where I’ve lost rankings and where I’m up in rankings. If I chose to, I could take it personally when I see that I’ve dropped 2 places in the ‘Most Entertaining’ category, that I’ve lost 1 ‘Smartest’ place or that I’ve slipped to the 6th ‘Most Dateable’.
I can be pretty damn entertaining when I want to be, I think I’m one of the smartest people I know and I like to think I’m a darn good catch for the single women in London.
But I don’t take it personally because I recognise 3 things:
1. The context of the rankings is one of throw away fun.
2. The rankings don’t reflect the way things actually are, being a subjective and unscientific comparison.
3. The rankings don’t reflect how I see and value myself.
Are you comparing yourself with people at work?
But it’s not just Facebook where I’m compared with others. In the workplace it’s common to compare yourself with your peers and the people below you and above you in the company. “He gets paid twice as much as me and does half the work” and “What she produces is always poor, so why do the managers love her so much?” are just a couple of things I’ve heard from colleagues, friends and clients.
Why do you feel the need to compare yourself with others at work?
Comparing yourself with a colleague is an easy way for you to judge how well you’re doing based on the differences between you, and is something we all do naturally. You might compare yourself on how popular you are, how efficient you are, how much time you spend in the office, how much you’re paid, how good you are at networking or any one of a hundred other factors.
What is common with all of these is that what you’re looking for is a measurement, a way of gauging how well you’re doing or a way of validating how well you’re doing (or not).
I remember one time back in the 90’s when I was working with a hugely capable and wildly popular guy on a high profile project. I asked myself questions about why he was more outgoing and popular than me and how he was able to establish a higher profile and garner more respect than me.
What I didn’t see until the project was done and I’d moved on to something else, is that I was also popular and had an equally high profile (if not higher), being able to influence key players and have people at the top listen to and act on my opinions. And I kicked myself when I found out that a couple of the women on the client team had the hots for me, but because I was under the mistaken belief that I wasn’t as popular as the other guy, I had no idea.
The problem comes when you look at the fact that these comparisons are coloured with your own perceptions and meanings, and are therefore entirely subjective. Mary might get paid more than you but that’s because she’s in another department or has more responsibility than you’re aware of. John might be able to bend the ear of key managers, but that’s because he has the confidence to speak up and has demonstrated that his opinions have value.
Don’t let your comparisons affect your beliefs and behaviour.
Are you comparing yourself with the right people?
If you insist on comparing yourself with a colleague – and it’s a hard habit to break – you need to be careful that you’re comparing yourself with the right people.
You have to compare apples with apples for the comparison to make sense, right? If you compare apples with swans then the comparison is flawed from the start – you might reach some kind of comparison but it’ll be nonsensical. An apple won’t peck you to death but a swan a day won’t keep the doctor away. And that’s just one silly example.
Comparing yourself with the CEO when you’re working in the post room is only going to make you feel crappy, but comparing yourself with a peer in a similar job in a similar industry makes a comparison relevant.
Penelope Trunk recently wrote that you should compare yourself to losers. While that’s a strategy that will work and will make you feel better about how you’re doing, it’s based on the fact that you’re looking for someone who isn’t performing at your level so that you can feel good. Keep doing that and it’s likely you’ll turn into a judgemental, back-stabbing loser yourself.
So I’d suggest that breaking the habit of comparing yourself with your co-workers is the most promising and confident way to go. It means that you need to be confident enough in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it so that you don’t need to look behind or in front to see where other people are in comparison. That doesn’t mean that you can’t look to others for input, a new perspective or to find out about what they’ve learned.
Compare yourself to what you know about your own previous performance. Compare yourself with how well you know you can perform and the quality of the work you turn out.
When comparison are made, take it all with a pinch of salt
Workplace comparisons are subjective, even if the comparison comes from appraisals. Don’t take it too seriously and if someone else (like your boss) is comparing your performance then take it with a pinch of salt – whether the comparison is favourable to you or not. It’ll be based on their perspective and their context.
Are you comparing yourself with your partner or friend
Another place where people compare themselves a little too often for my liking, is in personal relationships. Here are just a handful of situations I’ve coached clients through–
- A woman compared herself sexually, based on stories told to her about her boyfriends previous girlfriends. Consequently she began to doubt that she was delivering the goods (so to speak), pandered to her boyfriends sexual whims and rarely reached orgasm because of the pressure she was putting on herself.
- A woman compared herself to the success her boyfriend had achieved in his organisation. Consequently she felt like she was being left behind and that she couldn’t match up to his expectations.
- A man compared himself to his wife’s outgoing personality, and created a belief that he was introverted and introspective. Consequently, he started taking fewer chances because he believed they ‘weren’t for him’.
- A successful entrepreneur compared herself to her boyfriend who was unemployed. Consequently she felt like her success was ‘rubbing it in’, began to filter what she talked about around him and despite loving him she started resenting him and feeling guilty about resenting him.
- A woman compared herself to her oldest friend. Consequently, she felt overweight (she wasn’t), unpopular with men (she never gave herself a fair chance) and unsuccessful (she was great at her job in actual fact, but didn’t give it her all because she felt she couldn’t succeed).
What’s the reason you’re comparing yourself to him or her?
In a relationship or friendship, comparing yourself is a way of establishing the ‘pecking order’ and trying to establish your own security. You look at how you differ from the other person so that you’re aware of your social role and so you can spot any gaps you need to cross, holes you need to fill in or areas you need to work on.
It’s a remnant from our old tribal days, when there was a distinct social and familial hierarchy that determined your role in the unit. It’s a way of figuring out where you fit, where you belong.
What’s it doing to you?
The impact on the individuals in the examples I mention above is clear. And that’s just a small sample of the people I’ve worked with who’ve experienced similar things. Just yesterday I replied to an email sent by 16 year old girl who was comparing herself to her best friend and feeling 2nd best as a result.
Comparing yourself unfavourably to someone else will hit your confidence hard. It’ll strip your self esteem and shrink your beliefs about who you are and what you can do.
You’re different people so there will be differences. Comparing yourself to a friend or partner will only highlight those differences, and if you’re not watching what’s happening you can start shifting your beliefs based on those differences.
By all means be aware of the differences between you (difference management is an incredibly useful strategy in a long term relationship, both friendships as well as romantic relationships) , but the action isn’t to eliminate those differences it’s to honestly acknowledge them and even celebrate them.
Don’t let your differences take away from who you are. Your differences are what makes you you, and they’re your best assets.
The bottom line is that comparisons are just dandy as long as you understand that they’re subjective and understand how they’re affecting how you go about things. When you automatically make comparisons and choose a behaviour based on that comparison, you’re running the risk of making choices that take away from your confidence. You’ll run the risk of damaging how you see yourself.
And that’s the kind of damage that’s hard to reverse. It’s the kind of damage you don’t want to cause to yourself. Really, you don’t.