Ya know how sometimes a tune comes into your head? Snatches of a song, a poem, and sometimes something as ridiculous as a commercial? And they play over and over? Yeah. I’m fairly sure we all get them – those annoying “ear worms”. Well, a couple of days ago one came into my head and besides just being bizarre and wondering where in the world it came from, it set me to wondering about something else.
So the goofy ear worm was from an old commercial that, unless you’re as old as me, you may never have heard. But it goes like this:
“My dog’s better than your dog,
my dog’s better than yours.
My dog’s better ‘cause he eats Kennel Ration,
my dog’s better than yours.”
The commercial was sung by a bunch of kids in a sing-song manner – absolutely meant to become a bothersome tune resounding in your head and reminding you to buy Kennel Ration. Clever work on the part of some advertising agent that probably increased the sale of Kennel Ration for a time – at least until some other something came along to steal its thunder. The ingenious jingle also speaks to the proclivity of Americans in particular to out do the infamous Joneses – or at least keep up with them but certainly surpassing them if at all possible.
That silly sing-song got me thinking about us humans and our constant need to compare ourselves to one another. Why? What purpose does it serve? I did some reading and was reminded of what I thought I had learned long ago in a basic psychology class but had forgotten. There is a biological reason for comparing ourselves to others. We use comparison to help us sort out the age-old question of “Who AM I?” This drive was seriously explored by a social psychologist, Leon Festinger, in 1954. He said we compare our opinions and abilities to others to learn how to define ourselves because we are unable to define ourselves independently. We can only define ourselves in relation to someone else. That sounded pretty sad to me until I considered the fact that historically humans have survived best in groups. Making comparisons helped folks see what they were good at and what they weren’t so good at. Early on those assessments may have been used to decide who needed to be hunters and who needed to be gatherers. It was also helpful in determining if some action needed to be taken to improve an ability or change a position. All well and good until we carry it too far, right? And we humans manage to do that often with just about everything, don’t we? Hence, the commandment that Moses wrote on the tablet about not coveting what other folks have.
Now, lest you think I am above the fray – or even THINK I am – let me assure you that I’m right there among the masses and have been doing this forever right along with the rest of the human race. I can remember looking around at my classmates and continually noting all those kids who were smarter, prettier, and/or better at something than I was. It could be pretty depressing. My wise mother would remind me that no one was perfect – even when it looked that way from outside. She also reminded me to be grateful for what I had. If I was feeling grumpy, that was hard to do. But most days I knew, down deep, that she was right. So I grew up trying to appreciate others and whatever particular charm they possessed. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was hard. Over time you can come to acknowledge the gifts of others and to be grateful for how they inspire you or make your own life richer. This can be a particular benefit in the work place when you can rely on a fellow workmate for their greater skill or knowledge especially when they share it with you – what a difference it can make in a workday!
What I’ve been talking about are considered “upward comparisons” – when you compare yourself to someone you think is better than you. But there is also the “downward comparison” – when you compare yourself to someone you think is worse than you. Yeah, that ugly thought that creeps into your head as you stand in the check outline and think: “Well, at least I’m not THAT fill in the blank!” (if you’re searching for a word – try “fat”, “ugly”, “stupid”) And, come on, you know you’ve done it. Alas! we are human.
The fact is that comparing ourselves to others happens in a flash and rarely are we even aware of it. These comparisons – be they upward or downward – affect our self-image and self-esteem. They can motivate or depress us. Moreover, we depend on them. And, like everything else in life, sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes not.
Here’s the most striking thing I found in my reading that really blew my mind: the truth is that when we compare ourselves to others, we’re not really comparing ourselves to other people. (You can read that sentence again but I assure you I mean just what I said.) What we are comparing is the IDEAS we have about ourselves to other people – after all, we’ve been doing this comparing thing our whole lives and through this lens we have formed an idea of who we are. So we have this concept of ourselves and we look at others to validate who we think we are. One author called it a “hall of mirrors” and I think that’s about right. Now consider the fact that we now have social media – television, facebook, instagram, etc. to add to the process of our continual comparisons. So now we compare our concept of our self to the version of the other person that they choose to project into the world – which means we are comparing our idea of our self to someone else’s idea about themselves. Come to think of it there are an endless number of things to compare ourselves to! Crazy, huh?
It’s a secret that we all share – this judging and comparing. We mostly don’t talk about it but we all do it. And we do it even when it’s not helpful and when it makes us miserable. The Buddhists call it a form of suffering and I would have to agree. Wise old Buddha said, “It is rightly said that if you wish to be unhappy in your life, compare your life with that of the others around you, especially those who are much more successful than you.” Amen!
So how do we stop all this coveting, comparing, judging, and other nonsense? I think the answer lies in acceptance and observation. We begin by accepting that this tendency is part of our make-up – it’s how we humans work. And then we observe ourselves doing it. Once we notice that we’re doing it we can stop doing it if it is not productive. We can also ask why we are doing it – is it to inspire? Or is it to make us feel better about ourselves? Is it healthy or toxic? Little by little we come to know who we really are and to become what we really want to be in this world………..of course, it’s hard work and it may take me another lifetime. Anywho, here are some tips I’m going to employ on my journey:
- Like my mama said, focus and be grateful for what you have.
- Accept what is.
- Add a grain of salt to your social media forays.
- Only compare yourself to the person you were yesterday
Good luck on your journey!