“Comparison is the thief of joy…”

Theodore Roosevelt

How often do you compare yourself with others?

Does that comparison make you feel better about yourself—or does it make you feel less adequate?

According to psychologist Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, we are constantly driven to evaluate ourselves, and one of the main ways we do that is by social comparison—or comparing ourselves to others. We assess the comparison in two ways: upward and downward. Upward comparison is comparing ourselves to someone we think is better than us at something, and downward comparison is to someone we think we is worse off than we are.

While this tendency can be helpful as it can evoke a motivation to compete and drive us to improve ourselves, it often serves to hold us back from developing our own unique voice and expression.

I think about how many of my clients over the years have expressed holding back from speaking up in a meeting because they didn’t see themselves as charismatic as someone they were comparing themselves to.

Or they would forgo opportunities to give a presentation because they didn’t think they were as funny as someone whose presentation style they admired.

Or they’d feel uncomfortable with their new promotion because they deemed others so much more qualified than they were.

I can go on and on with examples of the feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy the comparisons to others surfaced.

An example of the stifling power of social comparison from my own experience remains vivid in my mind to this day.

One of my first jobs in the learning and development field was for a Fortune 200 company facilitating group workshops to help managers improve their interpersonal skills. While I had been speaking in front of large audiences since I was in the 2nd grade, I had not worked with groups of managers before. Many of the people in the room were quite a bit older than me, so I felt a bit intimidated at the prospect.

As I watched my boss facilitate the group, I noticed she held a stack of index cards and expertly flipped through them—reading them as she talked. She had scripted most of what she was going to say, and was quite effective doing so. As I compared my own style of speaking to hers, my anxiety mounted. I didn’t write my words on index cards and I didn’t write a script. I had prepared content of course and key points, but my facilitation style was much more extemporaneous. I concluded that I must be doing this the wrong way with a group of managers. The comparison paralyzed me and when I went up to speak in our first co-facilitated workshop, I tried my best to emulate her style. For the first time I can recall, I was nervous speaking in front of a group. My performance anxiety was high and I was totally focused on how I would compare to what my boss just did.

Needless to say, that was not my best day. I got through it, and the group seemed to be fine with it. But I wasn’t. My confidence was shot, and I doubted whether I should even be doing this at all.

I remember going home that evening nervous about the next day’s session. I couldn’t see myself facilitating the segment like my boss did.

As I played the comparison in my head, it hit me. The reason I was struggling was because I was comparing myself to someone with a totally different style and making the assumption that that was the most effective way to facilitate the session.

When I got to the session the next day, I had no index cards. I interacted with the group and drew upon their energy with questions. I was focused on the group and passionate about the content. My delivery and demeanor was natural and dynamic. “Inspirational” was the unanimous description from the group of the segment.

What I learned that day is that rather than focusing on comparing ourselves to others for self-evaluation, what is more effective is instead focusing on really developing our own voice and style. Trying to be funny as a presenter, for example, when it doesn’t come naturally and is forced, probably won’t be effective. But figuring out what is effective for YOU is more productive than comparing yourself to the person who comes across like a comedian and trying to be like him.

So instead of upward and downward comparisons, what if you focused on the things you bring to the table, and brought them full force, in your own voice and with your own unique style?

How much more impact would you have?


As always, I’d love to hear from you with your own experiences in this area.  Leave a comment or drop me a note…