In an argument with my boyfriend, recently, we found that we strongly disagree about something and decided to ask you for your opinion. It started when I told him to stop comparing himself to others all the time. I said that it doesn’t really matter what other people think or do and that he could be happier if he would quit focusing on others and just worry about himself. He said that it is impossible to know where you stand if you don’t compare yourself to those around you. He said that it is a way to motivate himself to improve, to try to be better than others.
Who is right? Can’t we just be ourselves? Do we always have to worry about what others think?
— To Care and To Not Care
Dear To Care and To Not Care,
Thank you for bringing up a topic that is relevant to many people, something quite common that we might be confused about. It starts with a very deep need that we all have, which is the need for acceptance, approval, belonging and connection. Having that need makes us vulnerable to the fear of rejection, the opposite of approval, belonging and connection. It means that most of us work hard to address that fear by doing things that will win approval and give us a place where we “belong” in the social order. Few people feel completely free of the underlying fear that drives our desire for approval.
One of the ways that we are likely to secure our place of social approval is to know the things that will earn it. We look around and see who is accepted or popular and we try to emulate what they do in an effort to meet our need of acceptance and to reduce our fear of rejection. A common term now is “social currency”. This is why it is quite natural and common to compare ourselves to others.
There can be positive and negative aspects to comparison. There are two directions of comparison, upward and downward. To compare oneself to those who are worse than we are on a particular trait or ability, downward comparison, is a self-protective, self-enhancing strategy. It helps people feel better about themselves. It might be a compensation for insecurity or fear of rejection, but not always.
Upward comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who are better than we are on a particular trait or ability. It can either lead to an increase in motivation — the aspiration we have to improve ourselves — or it can lead to a way of reinforcing negative views we have of ourselves that prove that we are less than that of what we see in others. When we want an accurate assessment of our abilities and opinions, we compare ourselves to people who are most similar to us.
So going back to the argument you are having with your boyfriend. It strikes me that you are interpreting his tendency to compare himself to others as an indication that he may lack self-confidence or self-esteem, that the source of his behaviour might be insecurity, fear. Sometimes that is true. People tend to be more externally focused when they are not feeling adequate about themselves.
Self-esteem is the value or worth a person gives themselves often connected to a belief they might about their “acceptability”. In an ideal childhood a child receives nurturing — the continued message that they are loved and valued for no reason other than that they are themselves.
This child grows up without the fears and doubts that are generated when we do not feel this unconditional acceptance. It starts from those around us and becomes internalized as confidence and self-love. Most of us have not had the ideal and have received messages that our value is associated to our performance, our appearance or our ability to gain the approval of others, somehow. That is why we can be very concerned about what others think or where we are, in comparison to others.
It is never too late to develop self-acceptance and self-approval. It is never too late to gain confidence without the approval of others. It is never too late to realize that self-acceptance and self-approval is the most likely way that we will reach our aspirations, our highest sense of who we might be. Fear and worry are the problems and the more we face and overcome them, the freer we are to discover what it means to be ourselves.
I say: care about what others think or do, but not too much. In the long run, it is what we think and feel about ourselves that matters the most.
I hope this is helpful.