herald

Saturday 21 October 2017

the dis-ease of com parison: that moment when a day goes from go od to 'I'm not as good as her'

life only flows as it should if you can adopt an 'i'm okay, you're okay' approach - But of course, like most things that is easier said than done...

There is a secret to happiness and it is very simple. Accept yourself. Of course this simple, but far from easy. Every psychotherapist, psychiatrist and new age self-help guru, even religions, have taught that the secret to happiness is acceptance and peace.

Change what you can, accept what you can't and be at peace. It's true that the most attractive and appealing people are those who are comfortable in their own skin, who are unthreatened and unthreatening because they have nothing to gain from scoring points from other people, there is no need for them to compare themselves to others, they're not constantly measuring other people's success, fortune, looks and life.

It was Mark Twain who said: "Comparison is the death of joy."

That state of zen-like self-acceptance which frees us from the burden of needing to be accepted by others is an ideal that we can spend a lifetime working towards, but in the meantime most of us do constantly compare ourselves to other people.

The Herald Body Image Survey found that how a woman measures her body image is predicated 39pc on what she sees on TV and 39pc on her peers. We might say we want to look good for ourselves, 82pc of the women surveyed gave that as their top reason, but how our standards of beauty are defined is the real issue.

Forty-five per-cent of women have cried over how they look, 62pc in the 18-24 age group. But how they look compared to what?

There are two kinds of comparison, Upward Comparison where we compare ourselves to people who seem better in any or every way.

We all know the feeling and how horrible it is to feel less than. Unsurprisingly studies have found that persistent upward comparison leads to issues of self-esteem, envy and depression.

Downward Comparison, where we look at other people worse off to make ourselves feel good, can provide a momentary self-esteem boost and there are people who specialise in surrounding themselves with people to whom they feel superior in order to maintain their own ego.

However, it does require looking for the weakness and bad points in others in order to feel good and that is a very slippery slope that ends nowhere nice.

Making comparisons is, in some respects, very natural. Competition is human nature, and we gauge progress and normality by what we see around us and what the rest of humanity is doing.

barbie

It has always existed but it is now more insidious and ubiquitous as the world has shrunk thanks to global marketing, media and the internet. Physical standards of beauty were normalised with mass fashion but really hit their stride with TV and advertising, Barbie and Ken's unreasonable statistics became an ideal from childhood.

Comparisons that started with Barbie have extended to being full-time accessible in your phone thanks to the internet.

Typical Irish traits have never been part of the accepted generic so now many Irish women work hard to attain the generic look, change skin tone, hair colour, eye shape and eyebrows.

It's not about changing to what suits, but to what is deemed beautiful.

Celebrities like Audrey Hepburn who were once unattainable paragons of exoticism are now faux accessible thanks to Twitter and a fashion for famous people pretending to be Just Like You. They aren't. It's just a marketing technique.

And where once the camera could be said to never lie, now the camera is a pathological liar. We are comparing ourselves to standards that are not only unreasonable, but very often unreal. In the flesh a lot of celebrities are unusually tiny or slightly odd looking, it just translates well via a lens.

Even when just comparing to peers as opposed to celebrities we are comparing to unrealistic scenarios. Studies have found that people are more likely to express positive emotions than negative ones, even at the cost of truth.

In part that's because we know other people don't necessarily want to hear our truth, but also it's because we tend to overestimate how good other people's lives are and underestimate their negative feelings.

The end result is one we all see daily, people who only post on social networks when they are dressed up, done up, going somewhere glam, on holidays or had some success.

People rarely post things like "really heavy period #clots" or "reversed into pillar in car park, had embarrassing meltdown" or even "nothing interesting at all has happened to me for weeks."

So, we are comparing to the best, incomplete and often frankly delusional version that people present of themselves.

Not only does it make us feel bad to feel inadequate, but research also indicates that negative feelings, especially those engendered by comparing ourselves to others and finding ourselves lacking, far from motivating us to improve actually inhibit motivation and cause us to do more of the things that make us feel bad.

Up to a point comparison can be a good thing, when it acts as a motivation for instance, but by and large comparison is destructive.

weak

Even generally confident, comfortable people have moments of feeling "less than."

There will be people or situations that make each of us feel inadequate and those feelings are borne of comparison. Perhaps each of us has a weak spot, education, weight, looks, career that we feel less secure on.

There will also be certain types of people that act as red flags, people who, for whatever reason, tap into some weak spot and make us feel less than.

Some poor souls feel less than around everyone and everything, someone is always thinner, or richer or has a nicer boyfriend or a cooler name, it is an awful place to be.

But the truth is there will always be someone better than you, prettier than you, thinner, cleverer, younger, richer, whateverer so it is an unwinnable battle.

There are always going to be people who are uglier, fatter, less clever, older, poorer, whateverer too.

The only way to really win is to work out why we feel threatened or inadequate, why does someone else's success detract from our own so we can tackle that, and, the only valuable comparison is to our own selves. It's not a question of being good enough, just of being good enough for yourself.

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