Comparing oneself with others

What follows is excerpted from a recent exchange where I commented on the topic of comparing our self with other people. The information is shared with permission, while the identity of my correspondent shall remain private.

I have a question, How does one deal with the dilemma of comparing oneself with others? For some context, I am a young male college student, studying engineering. I often compare my performance with that of my peers. I look at other students and say Wow I wish that I could do that. I wish I could have such good marks as my peers, understand something as well as them, be as good as they are. I sometimes get the feeling that I can not be as good as they are. This comparison to others is strange to me, how should I go about it?

I think comparisons are inevitable. Part of our nature is to mimic patterns of behaviour. At a basic level, this mechanism helps us learn new things and also adapt to the specifics of the given situation.

To compare and to mimic becomes a problem when it contradicts our actuality. This happens if we try to be someone else against our characteristics. For example, I am an introvert and have great difficulty doing what a very extroverted person does with ease (and they can’t easily do what is normal for me).

When we try to be someone else contrary to our reality, we always notice the distinction between who we are and what we want. We do not compare favourably to it. We then start belittling ourselves for not being good enough or, worse, for being an utter failure of a human being. In simple terms, we become our own worst enemy.

What causes us to deny or hate our self is the development of tunnel vision. For instance, you are comparing yourself to other students in terms of grades and the relevant performance. You are focused on the engineering part of it with an emphasis on how it is done in the class. When we focus on one point in this way, we tend to aggrandise it: we give it too much value as we think it is the centre of the universe. In simple terms, we say “either I have THAT or I have nothing.”

If left unchecked, this tunnel vision turns into an obsession. We want that single thing we are focusing on and we lose sight of the bigger picture. We forget that there is so much more to life than the object of our desire. Again, this links back to self denial and self-hatred as we tend to discount or altogether dismiss our qualities. For example, the student with the perfect grades may not be a funny or interesting person outside the specifics of engineering/studying, whereas you might be that. There are so many aspects to one’s individuality. Reducing ourselves to one or a few of them ends up being a form of dogma against us. It is like an unfair judgement of “if you don’t have a perfect score, you are nothing!” If you obsess with a given point, you ignore those other aspects of your self that make you who you are and for which others might like you.

We use the expression “our obsessions” or “my obsession”. It implies that we own it and we can basically do whatever we want with it. Though if you think about how it actually works, the obsession controls us. It conditions our behaviour, as everything we do is in the service of that object of desire we have. Taken to the extreme, obsessions force us to deny our self and to sacrifice what we have.

Having good grades is fine. What matters though, is that we do not measure our worth as a human being with such a one-size-fits-all instrument. It simply is the wrong method. We must consider our case, and every case, in light of its particularities. You have qualities that make you unique. These may not match with what you are now doing because, maybe, you still need to learn more about who you really are.

As we learn more about who we are, we start accepting the world as it is. We take what we have for what it is, without apologising for it. This means that we are no longer worried about how we compare to others. We free ourselves from that constant pressure. I am not implying that this is easy, as there are all sorts of social expectations in life that want us to be this or that. The idea is that accepting our actuality, coming to terms with our condition, has a benign longer-term effect on us. We are more calm. Then we notice how many of the people we once admired are actually not at peace with who they are: they keep faking it and are dying on the inside.

Try to widen that tunnel vision by wondering if good grades, possibly followed by a lucrative career, are worth a life of perpetual stress and self-denial. We are raised to think that more money and prestige is always good for us. But this ignores the underlying person. We all have different rhythms. If we ignore them for too long, we suffer. When we reach a critical point, we pray for things to be different. We wish we could go back in time to tell our past self to have a sense of the bigger picture, to learn to appreciate what they have, and to not let their obsessions control them.